Training when you are sick has always been controversial. Some people believe that ‘sweating it out’ when you have a cold is a great option, others swear you need to rest. In our fitness studio, we see both ends of the spectrum. When you're sick a great deal of people attempt to push through and train as they normally would, training harder than they should. Others choose to do the extreme opposite and do nothing, which is appropriate in some situations of course, but means the health promoting benefits of basic movement are lost. Whether we are talking about acute or chronic illness, we encourage training and healthy movement, but not a hard core workout!
Movement always makes us feel better
Movement is vital to health, and helps us to thrive in life. Motion is lotion, it reduces pain and gives us happy hormones, better circulation, better waste removal, better digestion and a more positive mindset. When we don’t move we get sore, cranky and suffer from a general lack of wellness. Put simply, without movement our function is downgraded.
Dosage is Important
A sedentary lifestyle without frequent healthy movement is a recipe for getting sick. In fact people who do not exercise or move enough get sick more often than those who are active. An active lifestyle filed with quality movement boosts health, and actually strengthens our immune system
When we are sick, we need to continue movement, BUT of course should be reducing the intensity, volume and overall training time. When illness strikes, our immune system is consuming the majority of the available energy and resources, and our body is stressed. The very last thing we need is more stress via the form of exercise.
In times of poor health, training should move away from ‘working out’, to simply moving and performing maintenance work that helps your body to recover and heal, rather than give your body another stress it will need to recover from on top of illness. When we are sick, stress hormones are elevated, and most of our metabolic energy is dedicated to our immune system, so we can heal. Training too intensely when the body is compromised with illness, just diverts your bodies limited healing resources towards training. It’s not a wise choice.
Here is a key example of just how much energy is required to fight a flu:
'A 175-pound man (79 kilos) would require more than 250 calories daily to maintain a fever of approximately 39 degrees. To put that expenditure in context, the same man requires 373 calories daily for his brain and 168 calories daily for his heart.'
-Dr Sarah Myhil - Diagnosis & Treatment of chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Myalgic Encephalitis
The Adrenalin Junkie
Exercising releases happy endorphins, and increases stress hormones like adrenalin and cortisol. These hormones help us feel reduced pain, better energy and focus during, and post workout. The cycle can be an addictive one, and many people who train multiple times a week, more intensely than they should get addicted to the exercise high, because it’s the part of their day they feel their best, but often they will crash or feel flat afterwards. This is a bad pattern at the best of times, but it's even more compromising when we are sick.
If our reserve is already depleted with illness or stress, increasing these hormones with a workout may make us feel better in the short term, but will likely prolong illness, or make us sicker! Exercise ignites our bodies stress response, and a healthy body will respond and adapt to become stronger.
If you are not feeling your best, and your workout leaves you sweating hard, breathing hard, and the whole workout feels hard, then it’s very unlikely you will make positive adaptations to your workout.
Moving when you are sick
A better choice when illness has a hold of you, is to focus on recovery training, maintenance and efficiency. The session should feel easy, totally achievable and you should feel better afterwards, not worse.
This looks like keeping your heart rate low and perhaps challenging yourself to stay low with complex movements that might otherwise get your heart rate up. Training for efficiency will only strengthen your body, and build your resilience. Ideally heart rate intensity should stay below 75% of your maximum to avoid adding too much stress to your body. Your session could include simple body weight exercises, mobility drills, vibration training, light resistance training, fascial fitness drills like foam rolling or trigger point release work.
None of us want to get sick, or be sidelined from life and have to miss out on scheduled activities. But unless you pull back and train smarter when you are sick, you will only just delay healing.
If you are really sick and have fevers, chills or a violent cough, even a structured light intensity session might be too much. Certainly it’s better to stay home on these days to avoid making things worse for yourself, and sharing your illness with those in the gym. If you are violently sick, simply walking around the house, foam rolling or performing some body weight mobilisers is ample, and will help your body to recover better.
While perhaps you can’t prevent catching a cold or being exposed to the virus or bacteria that causes it, you most certainly can do your best to manage just how sick you get, or to build up your resilience and avoid getting sick in the first place.
Whether you get sick comes down to your resilience, and the resources you have to fight an infection. It’s not much to do about luck at all. If you are burning the candle at both ends, eating badly and over training, sickness is more likely on the agenda.
You’ll be more likely to catch a cold or make yourself sicker if you do the following:
Eat a high sugar diet
Train too intensely, and too often
Don’t sleep or recover enough
Work in artificial light all day and don’t get enough exposure to the sun
Don’t move enough and live a sedentary lifestyle
Are highly stressed
Perform endurance training - Long distance training is the worst type of training you can do when sick
When you begin to feel run down, it important to act quickly and give your body what it needs – a break and resources to fight! Eat well, drink good quality water, move intelligently, reduce stress and supplement wisely.