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Fitness industry’s role in rehabilitating COVID-19 sufferers 'cannot be over-estimated'

By Tom Walker    04 Sep 2020
Those suffering from the effects of the virus will need to rebuild their physical and mental resilience – and the fitness sector can help / Shuttertock.com/lassedesignen
Fitness professionals have the consultation, empathetic, coaching and programming skills which could be adapted to provide a supportive workforce to aid in post COVID-19 rehabilitation efforts
– Dr Dane Vishnubala
Credit: Active IQ

The fitness sector is perfectly placed to help people recovering from the effects of COVID-19, according to a thought leadership analysis in the latest issue of HCM magazine.

While much about the virus is still unknown, medics are already reporting high incidences of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome in post-COVID patients, as well as a wide range of issues with organ damage and reduced lung capacity and scarring.

Studies on previous pandemics – such as SARS in 2002 – also suggest that those suffering from the effects of the virus will need to rebuild their physical and mental resilience.

Studies undertaken on the long-term effects of SARS, in Hong Kong, showed that two years after they had the disease, 50 per cent of survivors had a much reduced exercise capacity, while 40 per cent still had chronic fatigue symptoms three and a half years after being diagnosed.

"The health and fitness industry’s role in supporting and rehabilitating people who have suffered from COVID-19 cannot be over-estimated," Dr Ursula Levine, a GP and integrative medicine specialist at Lanserhof at The Arts Club, told HCM.

"Our industry has two roles to fulfil: to rehabilitate those who have had the virus and educate and empower those who have not.

"The virus doesn’t just attack the respiratory system: people have reported fatigue, muscle ache, gut issues and kidney problems, so all those systems and organs need rejuvenating.

"Operators should also anticipate patients presenting with mental health challenges as a result of the crisis.

"At Lanserhof, we have found patients have generally been emotionally and mentally discouraged. They complain of feeling drained and report cravings and a tendency to adopt bad habits. This suggests there is likely to be a spike in addictive behaviour and possible substance misuse issues."

According to Dr Dane Vishnubala, chief medical advisor at Active IQ, the fitness industry has the facilities and the staff to make a huge difference in returning COVID-19 survivors to full health.

"Fitness professionals have the consultation, empathetic, coaching and programming skills which could be adapted to provide a supportive workforce to aid in post COVID-19 rehabilitation efforts," he told HCM.

"While some upskilling is necessary, instructors with exercise referral or pulmonary rehab qualifications could be upskilled quite easily via CPD – potentially even online."

There are already some programmes which use exercise as part of a patient's COVID-19 recovery.

One of these is the Newport Live COVID-19 recovery programme in Wales.

Created by the clinical team at Aneurin Bevan University Health Board, in partnership with Public Health Wales, the eight-week programme is operated at Newport Life-managed leisure facilities.

"Each programme is tailor-made, in accordance with the individual’s health status prior to the illness and the impact of the virus," said Steve Ward, CEO of Newport Live.

"Each person needs a unique approach requiring psychological support, physiotherapy and lifestyle advice, as well as physical exercise," he told HCM.

"The aim is for those who have participated in the programme to continue to receive support and encouragement to remain active once the eight weeks conclude.

"I think the health and fitness industry is brilliantly placed to support rehabilitation and this situation is a game changer that the sector must embrace, especially as we don’t know how long the effects of COVID-19 will be with us."

Dr Ben Kelly, head of clinical research at Nuffield Health, agrees. "Gyms and leisure centres have a vital part to play in improving the long-term health of the population, both physically and mentally," he said.

"As a sector we need to think about how we can support the NHS and allied health professionals and define a model which can be adapted to support COVID-19 rehabilitation.

"Exercise is as specific as a drug in terms of how it works for people, what they need, when it can be undertaken and how it is prescribed and we need to start respecting it in this way," he said.

"There may be a need for clinical referral to exercise for former COVID-19 patients, so operators will need to make formal connections with referring NHS sites. As a sector we will also need to work on a standardised model of care delivery using PTs, who will need to be upskilled to deliver rehabilitation programmes.

"This model should enable processes to remain standardised and allow the specialist knowledge of the condition to be adapted over time. This way the model can be used to support the participants through other conditions as well."

• Levine, Vishnubala, Ward and Kelly were speaking exclusively to HCM as part of a panel of experts discussing the fitness industry's role in helping individuals recover from the after-effects of COVID-19. To read the full article, click here for issue 8 of HCM.

Lanserhof  Newport  Nuffield Health  fitness sector  COVID-19  virus  Chronic Fatigue Syndrome  Dr Ben Kelly  Urula Levine  Steve Ward  Dane Vishnubala  Active IQ  
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