Can you work out when you’re sick?
Winter is almost upon us and with it, the cold and flu season. Sniffles, coughs and body aches and pains are not only unpleasant to deal with, they can also throw our fitness regime into disarray. While the thought of working out while sick can seem counter-intuitive, giving up exercise altogether isn’t always necessary. But how do you know which illnesses you can work out through, and which you should stay in bed for? We asked Exercise Physiologist John Quinn, from Sydney East Sports Medicine & Orthopaedics (SESMO), for his expert advice on whether or not to train with all kinds of maladies.
Colds and flu
On the whole, John, who has been fitness coach and adviser to track and field stars such as Jana Pittman, AFL teams such as GWS Giants and Essendon, and the Socceroos, says the common cold is no reason to stop your workout sessions. “If you’ve got a bit of a runny nose I don’t think that’s a cause for alarm,” he says, adding that that the exception to this rule is when you have a temperature.
“If you’ve got a bit of a fever, sweats happening, you’d be foolish to be out there raising your heart rate too much,” he says. “A temperature is the body trying to control the illness you’ve got, so why put your body under more stress, it’s already stressed enough.”
John explains that the heavier your cold, the easier you should take it.
“Listen to your body,” he advises. “[With a heavy cold], if you regularly exercise, you just need to go back to your basic stuff where your heart rate is fairly low and you’re fairly comfortable with what you’re doing. Turning your legs over on the bike, for example, going for a walk or even a low-grade run won’t be too bad. Similarly, going to the gym and lifting weights won’t stress out your body too much. You’ve just got to go slowly and let your body recover.”
If you’re dealing with a hacking chesty cough, John says you can still try exercising at a less-intense level, but if you experience persistent coughing or any pain, you need to let common sense prevail and see a doctor.
“All exercise requires oxygen, so if you’re restricting that getting in, you’re putting your whole system under stress, not just your lungs but your heart and everything else, he says. “[If exercise is making you] feel ill, light-headed or nauseous, then you need to see a doctor to get that clearance before you start training again, to make sure you don’t have any bronchial issues. You may even discover that you have asthma and you didn’t know you had it. Getting the right medication will get you back on track again.”
Hard-core would be the individual who attempted exercise whilst in the throes of gastro … and they would be foolish also, says John.
“If someone is nauseous, vomiting or has diarrhoea, they definitely shouldn’t be out there,” he says. “They’ll have a fever anyway, so again, it’s important to let the body fight the illness while resting.”
But what about after? When it comes to resuming your fitness program after you’ve been laid low with a gastro bug, food poisoning or the like, John says he would offer the same advice he’d give someone new to a fitness program.
“Ease into it, go every second day, and each time you go, increase the intensity slightly until your bug’s gone or you’re feeling better,” he suggests, adding that the recovery time will be relative to the duration of the illness.
“For regular trainers who’ve had gastro, if they’ve been sick for a week, they need to take about two weeks to get back into the swing of things,” he explains. “If they’ve been sick for two weeks, they might need to give themselves three to four weeks to ease back training.”
John also recommends getting some help if you’re unsure of how to safely resume your fitness program.
“Look at getting somebody to structure up a program for you, be that your doctor or in the sense of what we do at the clinic in Double Bay, get someone like an exercise physiologist to structure up a program to help you ease back in.”
Headaches and earaches
When it comes to headaches, earaches and the like, John recommends letting pain be your guide.
“Sometimes the headache could be because you’ve had a stressful day or you’re a bit fatigued from lack of sleep, so going for a run will get the hormones going and the blood flow happening and be just the thing to move it on,” he says. “But if you go for a run and that headache is escalating, then you’ll want to stop. Same with an earache, let pain be your guide but be aware that it can also affect things such as balance. Listen to your body, slowly build it up and make sure you’ve got the nutrition and vitamins around you to maintain the load, not just for your training but your lifestyle in general.”
Overall, John says the take home message is to “listen to your body… if you feel really tired and lethargic after your training, take the hint. If you wake up and you’re feeling worse, don’t push through it. Ultimately the illness is going to win and you’ve got to let the body recover.”
John also says we should be taking it one step back and asking how we can prevent getting a cold or flu in the first place.
“A lot of people I see in the clinic and other places I work, their lives are in imbalance,” he says. “We’ve all got so many things going on, we never take the time to rate all the different aspects of our lives and judge whether everything is okay. If we can get some regular exercise in and also look at those other areas in our lives that might need work, that will go a long way to preventing sickness in the first place.
He adds, “You could also look at increasing your vitamin intake – perhaps having a smoothie for breakfast rather than Weetbix, with some yoghurt or almond milk mixed with blueberries and banana. That will give you an antioxidant hit with some vitamin C thrown in as well, which will help keep colds and flus at bay.”
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