A scientist working at the forefront of COVID-19 research has identified how exercise can help people survive the deadly disease.

Forget dark chocolate and kale, there’s a new antioxidant we all need to know about it. It’s called extracellular superoxide dismutase (EcSOD), an antioxidant that’s released in the body during exercise.

The potent EcSOD antioxidant is known to help prevent disease by hunting down harmful free radicals. Its production happens naturally within our muscles and then it is circulated throughout the body where it binds to vital organs. When we exercise, EcSOD production is amplified.

The reason this antioxidant is suddenly under the spotlight is because of its link to surviving COVID-19.

Professor Zhen Yan at the University of Virginia has spent recent months completing an in-depth review into why COVID-19 suffering affects some more than others. His findings "strongly support” the possibility that higher levels of EcSOD in the body can prevent, or at least reduce, the severity of acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) – one of the worst possible outcomes of COVID-19.

ARDS has been identified as a major cause of death amongst COVID-19 patients. We know from previous research that approximately 45 percent of those who develop severe ARDS will die. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between 20 and 42 percent of COVID-19 patients in hospital will develop ARDS. Between 67 and 85 percent of those in intensive care will suffer from ARDS.

If cardiovascular exercise promotes the production of EcSOD, this potentially has a knock-on effect which will decrease the risk of ARDS. And even just a single session of exercise could make a difference. Research shows that cardiovascular exercise drives the highest immediate spikes in EcSOD production, but improving muscle mass through strength training can also lead to increases.

With this in mind, Yan urges everyone to find ways to exercise.

“We often say that exercise is medicine. EcSOD sets a perfect example that we can learn from the biological process of exercise to advance medicine,” Yan said.

“While we strive to learn more about the mysteries of the superb benefits of regular exercise, we don’t have to wait until we know everything before starting to take advantage of this benefit.”

Interestingly, Yan’s review has also addressed the use of EcSOD for treating COVID-19. Scientists are now exploring how enhanced EcSOD can be redistributed to lung tissue as a preventative and therapeutic measure to reduce the risk and severity of ARDS. And it’s not just COVID-19 sufferers who could benefit. Early research indicates that chronic kidney disease could be treated with increased EcSOD production and it could also help prevent multi-organ dysfunction syndrome.