Physical exercise effects on the brain during COVID-19 pandemic: links between mental and cardiovascular health

Neurol Sci. 2021 Apr;42(4):1325-1334. doi: 10.1007/s10072-021-05082-9. Epub 2021 Jan 25.


The current pandemic was caused by the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2). The quarantine period during corona virus disease 19 (COVID-19) outbreak might affect the quality of life leading thousands of individuals to diminish the daily caloric expenditure and mobility, leading to a sedentary behavior and increase the number of health disorders. Exercising is used as a non-pharmacological treatment in many chronic diseases. Here, we review the molecular mechanisms of physical exercise in COVID-19 pandemic on mental health. We also point links between exercise, mental, and cardiovascular health. The infection caused by SARS-CoV-2 affects host cells binding to angiotensin-converting enzyme-2 (ACE2), which is the receptor for SARS-CoV-2. If there is not enough oxygen supply the lungs and other tissues, such as the heart or brain, are affected. SARS-CoV-2 enhances ACE2 leading to inflammation and neuronal death with possible development of mood disorders, such as depression and anxiety. Physical exercise also enhances the ACE2 expression. Conversely, the activation of ACE2/Ang 1-7/Mas axis by physical exercise induces an antiinflammatory and antifibrotic effect. Physical exercise has beneficial effects on mental health enhancing IGF-1, PI3K, BDNF, ERK, and reducing GSK3β levels. In addition, physical exercise enhances the activity of PGC-1α/ FNDC5/Irisin pathway leading to neuronal survival and the maintenance of a good mental health. Thus, SARS-CoV-2 infection leads to elevation of ACE2 levels through pathological mechanisms that lead to neurological and cardiovascular complications, while the physiological response of ACE2 to physical exercise improves cardiovascular and mental health.

Keywords: Anxiety; Corona virus; Depression; Heart; Inflammation; Physical activity.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Brain / physiology*
  • COVID-19*
  • Cardiorespiratory Fitness*
  • Cardiovascular System*
  • Exercise*
  • Humans
  • Mental Health*
  • Pandemics*