Have you ever heard someone say they are headed to the gym to “sweat out the sickness”? As a gym owner and a personal trainer, I have heard this more times than I can count. I have always believed that this idea was not only counter-productive but, also inconsiderate of other gym member/ staff. Why would I want you to be in my gym if you are sick and will pass your germs on to others or more selfishly to me!
Yet, after digging a little deeper into the actual science behind training when sick I may have been wrong all along! It seems that working out could very well be a valid option to suppressing a sickness but, there are three considerations we need to examine when we are deciding if we should work out or not. These three main considerations we need to look at are: is the infection across the entire body (systemic), is this infection localized to an area from the throat up and what’s the condition of the individual being considered?
Let’s start by looking at the first consideration of what type of an illness or infection are we speaking about. This is the first and most important consideration in making your decision on heading to the gym.
When we are talking about a systemic infection this would mean any sickness that includes flu like symptoms. (vomiting, diarrhea, fever, muscle aches, etc.) If you have any of these symptoms your best option is to rest and recover. Research has shown that any form of exercising with a systemic illness could increase the severity of the sickness and lead to other concerning issues like dehydration.
The suggested time to refrain from intense exercise is a period of 7-14 days after the symptoms have resolved. Take this time to focus on sleeping, eating and hydrating.
The second consideration is what if the infection is confined to the throat and up. Typical symptoms for a sickness like this would be a runny nose, head ache or slightly sore throat. If this is the type of infection you are dealing with then I have some good news for you!
For a sickness that is confined to the throat and up, moderate exercise could actually help to stave off sickness or suppress your current cold. Research done at Illinois University suggests that moderate intensity exercise reduces inflammation and improves the immune response to respiratory viral infections. The idea is that moderate exercise induces a level of stress hormones that down-regulates excessive inflammation within the respiratory tract and aids in activating innate anti-viral immunity creating a shift in the immune response. In other words, moderate exercise has been shown to help suppress sickness and improve overall health if the infection is localized to this specific area.
I want you to keep in mind that this is MODERATE exercise. When we are talking about moderate intensity I want you to think about doing 70-80% of the total work you are used to doing in the gym. Training at this intensity should allow for you to stay in a safe zone without intensifying your illness and should help your body overcome the illness faster.
DISCLAIMER:In the studies they do mention that intense exercise could actually cause the virus to gain a better foothold in your body and actually increase the severity of the virus no matter the type of infection. So, be smart and don’t push past that 70-80% work load!
When I speak about conditioning I am referring to the frequency with which the individual is going to the gym. If the individual in question is sedentary or untrained then continuing a training program while sick may not be the best idea.
In one study conducted by Appalachian State University they found that elderly women who had been working out (conditioned) had a better immune response than those that had been sedentary. This is significant to us because it gives us some insight into the idea that even at an older age when immune systems should be more compromised those that were more conditioned to working out had a better immune response.
If we consider the idea above then we must expect that each individual’s conditioning will come into play on making the decision about continuing exercise or taking a break.
So, the question still remains should we work out when we are sick? My response would be yes you can work out when you are sick and it can actually be beneficial for you. But, before you go working out there are a few questions you must ask yourself. If you have an infection that has flu like symptoms or if you have been sedentary for a-while and get sick then going to the gym may not be the best decision for you or those around you. Now, if you have an illness that is confined to your throat and up then you can definitely continue to work out. As long as this exercising is moderate you should be able to recover from your sickness at a more rapid rate and be back to training all out soon. Just be sure not to push it too hard and keep your training sub maximal until your sickness has completely subsided. Otherwise, you may end up being forced to take a week or more off from training. At the end of the day who wants to spend that much time out of the gym?
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