BOONE — An Appalachian State University professor of biology has predicted an increased likelihood for ongoing infectious disease pandemics because the world’s population is becoming older, more unfit and obese.

David Nieman — who also serves as the director of the university’s Human Performance Laboratory at the North Carolina Research Campus in Kannapolis — has published a review paper titled “Coronavirus Disease-2019: A tocsin to our aging, unfit, corpulent and immunodeficiency society.”

The paper includes Nieman’s review of existing research by others, his own immunity research and information learned during the outbreak of COVID-19. It will be published in the June edition of the Journal of Sport and Health Science — a peer-reviewed international, multidisciplinary journal dedicated to the advancement of sport, exercise, physical activity and health sciences. The paper was made available online in May.

In the paper, Nieman examines in depth how regular, moderate-intensity physical activity reduces morbidity and mortality from respiratory illness.

There are two strategies to reduce the risk for COVID-19, according to Nieman — mitigation activities and the adoption of lifestyle practices consistent with good immune health, such as exercising. Mitigation approaches include the practice of physical distancing, the use of cloth face coverings in community settings when physical distancing cannot be maintained, staying at home when sick and following healthy hygiene practices — handwashing, regularly cleaning surfaces and not sharing physical items with others.

“Mitigation measures protect older adults and those with underlying medical conditions, but lifestyle approaches such as physical activity and weight management will bolster immune defense,” Nieman said.

He continued, “Obesity impairs the body’s ability to ward off and recover from viral infections. This condition can prolong virus shedding during the duration of illness, increase symptom severity and encourage the evolution of mutated viruses. Aging leads to negative changes in immune function, a process termed immunosenescence. As a result, infectious disease is more likely and vaccines are less effective among the elderly.”

Those at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19 include older males and people of all ages with obesity and underlying medical conditions such as hypertension, cardiovascular disease, chronic lung disease and chronic metabolic diseases such as Type 2 diabetes.

Nieman predicts that as the world’s population becomes older and more obese, infectious disease pandemics spawned by novel pathogens will continue to inflict widespread morbidity and mortality. As a preventive measure, he encourages staying lean and fit throughout life.

His studies indicate that 30 to 60 minutes of near-daily activity, such as brisk walking, stimulates the immune system to detect and destroy viruses. The result is a 25 to 50 percent reduction in risk for respiratory infections, including the common cold, influenza and pneumonia.

“This is indeed a wake-up call, a tocsin, to the world that primary prevention countermeasures focused on health behaviors and hygiene demand our full attention and support,” Nieman said.

The underlying rationale of immune preparedness is a key research initiative being pursued by a group of investigators at the North Carolina Research Campus. The primary goal is to develop an immune preparedness test panel that can be applied at the population level in a practical manner and is based on cutting-edge technologies, including proteomics, genomics and metabolomics.

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