Training when you're sick: bear it or bow out?
As the seasons change, even the healthiest among us can fall victim to the occasional bug. Cold and flu symptoms as well as intense allergies can leave you feeling exhausted. But for those of us that have just started up a new workout routine, taking time off to heal can feel like you’re falling off track. Even if you feel weak and out of it, sacrificing progress for recovery can be a tough sell. But bed rest isn’t always the best treatment when you’re feeling under the weather. Maybe a little movement is just what you need to get things moving in a positive direction. It’s important to know when to push through the pain and when to bow out for your own health.
The cells responsible for fighting off infection originate in our bone marrow and thymus. They wage war in your lymph nodes, spleen, and mucus membranes. That means they are constantly trying to defend your body in your mouth, gut, lungs and urinary tract.
There are two layers of the immune system: innate and adaptive. The innate immune system is formed at your birth and is made up of physical, and chemical barriers. Because of its vital reproductive functions, the female immune system tends to be naturally stronger than males’.
The adaptive immune system learns from its environment and molds to prevent pathogens from spreading in our bodies. It is made up of white blood cells with a kind of memory that helps them identify familiar microorganisms overtime, keeping you from getting the same strain twice. This process is what we know as “building immunity”. That’s why children get sick much more often than adults, their bodies are still absorbing new bacteria and learning how to fight it. Adult immune systems have had more time to mature and grow with the outside world.
The cold and flu keep coming around every season because they are ever evolving viruses. They continue to adapt with their environment and overwhelm the human immune system. That’s why there’s no guaranteed cure for every strain.
There are two symptoms of illness that should always keep you out of the gym. Fever and whether or not you’re contagious. Fever is our body’s natural defense against infection. Your body’s internal temperature rises to kill the harmful bacteria or virus.
Physical activity and working out raises your internal body temperature too, so if you already have a fever, this can be a dangerous combination. The general rule of thumb is 101 degrees or higher means no gym time. If you push your fever higher than it should be, you could induce a seizure or in severe cases, brain damage.
At your local gym, obviously, you’ll be sharing equipment and weights with all the other members. This is why you should always keep in mind how contagious you might be. Your hands will be touching machines, dumbbells, even the water fountain, and could spread infection farther than you realize. Contagious literally means “communicable by contact”, or that infectious microorganisms can be transmitted from person to person. The usual cold/flu can be contagious for up to 10 days, but you can get a more precise recommendation from your doctor.
Another factor to keep in mind: stress hormones. This is how we define strenuous and non-strenuous exercise. When you aren’t sick, your body responds to stress really well and responds by building new muscle. When you’re flooded with a virus, stress becomes more of an issue. Your adaptive immune system is suppressed so your body can deal with the stress and you're even more vulnerable to bacteria. It doesn’t mean you can’t work out, but that non-strenuous movements may be your best bet. Walking instead of running, light weight instead of heavy, or maybe just being active around the house instead of the gym.
It’s not uncommon for active individuals to feel their symptoms worsen if they stay in bed all day. Movement and fitness is their body’s natural rhythm, and can get thrown off with sudden inactivity. That’s why it’s not always a bad idea to at least do something active when you’re feeling sick. If you’re just feeling the sniffles or dealing with a cough, working out can’t hurt. If you are feeling weak in certain areas, simply adjust your training until it’s more comfortable for you in your current state.
If you are up to it and your symptoms are manageable, moderate exercise can actually temporarily relieve congestion by opening up your nasal passages.
Some experts recommend the “neck check” when you’re trying to decide if you should go to the gym. If your symptoms are above the neck: sneezing, congestion, sore throat, then it’s ok to workout out. If your symptoms are below the neck: body aches, stomach pain, or trouble standing, definitely sit it out.
Take it from me
I recently came down with a cold for the first time in months and it hit me pretty hard. For the first two days I was sick, my face felt hot and my body was aching all over. I wanted to get to the gym, but I just knew that I needed a break. I stayed in bed as much as I could and tried to create the best environment for healing.
After those two days, I was still congested, but I didn’t feel nearly as bad. I missed the weights and I felt much more capable, so I got back in the gym. I chose an upper body workout because lower body is much more challenging for me. I realized at the first machine that I got winded faster than normal, so I just slowed down and took the time to catch my breath. I made a point of showing myself a little compassion where I could. Before I knew it, all the congestion subsided and I felt like I could breathe again. Just getting moving was just the medicine I needed.