Exercise May Help Treat Diabetes, Depression in Wake of COVID-19

Regular exercise may play a key role in helping people deal with both depression and diabetes in the wake of COVID-19 — symptoms often recognized as part of “long COVID” — according to a new analysis published in the journal Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews.

Diabetes is well recognized as a risk factor for worse outcomes in people who develop COVID-19 — with higher rates of hospitalization, admission to the intensive care unit (ICU), and death among people with diabetes, especially if they have worse blood glucose control. But COVID-19 has also been shown to cause elevated blood glucose levels in people who didn’t previously have diabetes — both during the acute (initial) phase of COVID-19, and as a lingering effect in people with long COVID. One recent study showed that diabetes in the wake of COVID-19 hospitalization may be a temporary problem for most people. But many people who develop long COVID were never hospitalized for COVID-19, and researchers are still trying too figure out why some people develop these long-term symptoms in the wake of their infection, while others don’t.

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For the latest analysis, researchers examined whether there is evidence to suggest that exercise could help address symptoms of long COVID — an important area of inquiry, since no treatment currently exists for long COVID. It’s also unclear how many people with COVID-19 go on to develop long COVID, with estimates ranging widely from 15% to 80% of all people infected, according to a press release on the study. In their article, the researchers present a hypothesis — not any new research findings — based on what previous studies have shown about exercise and depression, type 2 diabetes, and inflammation. Ongoing inflammation is believed to be responsible for many of the effects of long COVID.

Exercise may disrupt inflammatory processes in long COVID

The researchers noted that long COVID most likely represents a cycle of inflammatory processes, which can include inflammation of insulin-producing pancreatic beta cells. Ongoing inflammation of these cells may eventually cause them to become permanently damaged, leading to type 2 diabetes. Exercise has been shown to increase levels of helpful chemicals in the body that interfere with this inflammatory response in beta cells, and exercise also increases insulin sensitivity throughout the body — meaning that the beta cells don’t have to work harder to meet the body’s insulin needs. Similar inflammatory processes may occur in the brain as part of long COVID, with exercise potentially playing a similar role in disrupting this cycle of immune system overactivity.

“Exercise takes care of the inflammation that leads to elevated blood glucose and the development and progression of diabetes and clinical depression,” said article author Candida Rebello, PhD, a research scientist at Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in the press release. “Ideally, you would do a 30-minute session of exercise. But if you can only do 15 minutes at a time, try to do two 15-minute sessions. If you can only walk 15 minutes once a day, do that. The important thing is to try. It doesn’t matter where you begin.”

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