Recovering From Covid? Be Wary of Returning to Exercise Too Soon

Duane Townsend

Wired - September 15, 2020

FROM THE IMAGES of cloudy chest scans and gasping patients hooked up to ventilators, we’ve been conditioned to think of Covid-19 as a respiratory disease. But it’s not just about the lungs. Even from the early days of the pandemic, doctors were finding that a novel coronavirus infection could ravage other parts of the body, including the brain, blood vessels, and heart. Data from initial outbreaks in China, New York City, and Washington state suggested that 20 to 30 percent of patients hospitalized with Covid-19 showed signs of cardiac injury.

That these patients tended to get sicker and died more often than patients without cardiac complications didn’t set off immediate alarm bells. These were, after all, people with serious cases of Covid-19—serious enough to wind up in the hospital. Most people who contract the virus experience a spectrum of less-severe symptoms. As many as one in three never feel sick. But now, evidence is emerging that the virus can cause heart damage even in people who’ve had mild symptoms or none at all, especially if those people exercise while they’re infected.

Last month, when league commissioners from the Big Ten and Pac-12 college conferences announced they would be postponing the 2020 fall sports season, one of the major factors they cited were concerns over something called myocarditis. That’s cardiologist-speak for what happens when the muscular walls of the heart become inflamed, weakening the organ and making it more difficult for it to pump blood. It’s not a newly discovered condition, and it turns up pretty rarely, but when it does, it’s most often triggered by an infection. Viruses, bacteria, even invading amoebas, yeasts, and worms have all been shown to cause it.

What they have in common is that they jolt the body’s immune system into attack mode, leading to inflammation. If a person rests while they are ill and during recovery, most of the time the inflammation recedes and the heart muscle heals on its own. But strenuous activity while the heart is weakened can cause swelling in the legs, dizziness, shortness of breath, and—in serious cases—irregular heartbeat, cardiac arrest, and sudden death.

These more extreme outcomes are seen most often in competitive athletes. That’s why cardiologists have been urging caution about the return of sports mid-pandemic. Just last month, former Florida State basketball player Michael Ojo died of apparent heart complications while playing in a pro league in Serbia, shortly after the 27-year-old had recovered from Covid-19. ...
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