Sick for the Gym

Having just spent a long weekend battling this season’s offering of the flu, I thought it would be fitting to talk about when it is appropriate, or even safe, to train when you are feeling under the weather.

We’ve all been there, once you are in the habit of your gym schedule, nothing can stop you from getting through your workouts in the right order and on the right day.  This is a good thing, it means you have incorporated healthy habits into your lifestyle which is not easy.  However, there are situations where what is best for the body is taking a break and allowing for adequate recovery time.

Advice on this topic is mixed.  You are either instructed to stay as far away from the gym and any physical activity as humanly possible, or to continue your fitness routine as planned and to “sweat it out.”  Other advice will recommend you “listen to your body” which continues to beg the question as to whether or not you should exercise.

The first thing to consider is the type of sickness you are dealing with here.  Of course, if you are fighting something like pneumonia, bronchitis or strep throat you should 100% stay home and allow your body (and most likely some antibiotics from your doctor) to do its job of recovering.  Fever, body aches and excessive fatigue are all signs from your body to take a break.

Something like the common cold, on the other hand, may leave you with a little bit more energy to move around.  If you are questioning whether or not to work out, it is likely that you are in this “grey area.” To be more specific these are strictly “above the neck symptoms,” “such as a runny nose, nasal congestion, sneezing or minor sore throat” (Laskowski, 2017).

In this case, a bit of light exercise may be beneficial, helping to clear out nasal passageways to promote ease of breathing.  The key here is light exercise.  This could be a brisk walk or bike ride, preferably outdoors so you can get some fresh air as well.  These activities “aren’t intense enough to create serious immune-compromising stress on the body” (Andrews, 2018).

This gives some credence to the “sweat it out” theory, however, it is important to consider the type of workout you are trying to do.  If you are headed to the gym for heavy weight training, or high-intensity intervals your body is going to prioritize recovery of the immune system before it begins recovery for the muscles you are breaking down in your workout.  So at the end of the day, you should consider whether it will be time well spent.

Another point to consider is whether you are contagious or not.  We’ve all seen someone coughing and sneezing all over the most popular equipment.  The last thing you want to be is “that guy,” potentially putting fellow gym-goers in the same position you are in now.  At the very least, if you do head to the gym, be sure to wash your hands before hitting the floor and wipe down all equipment after you’re done using it!

Heavier resistance training may also weaken your immune system (especially in males), due in part to the effects weight training has on testosterone levels.  The reasons why are not entirely clear, however immune responses to infections such as influenza have been known to be weaker in men than they are in women (Goldman, 2013).  Because heavy strength training has also been shown to boost testosterone levels, it would stand to reason that workouts of this nature would not be recommended while one is sick.

Finally, if you have been working hard in the gym, you may be worried that all your hard earned muscle is going to start melting away if you miss a day or two.  Fortunately, evidence shows that it takes about three weeks before muscle mass begins to atrophy and that taking a little break may actually put you at a greater advantage when you return (Fisher, et al, 2013).

If a visual check of your body makes you think you have lost muscle after just a few days of being sick, it is most likely due to changes in hydration and muscle glycogen levels.  You can combat this by trying to stick to your nutrition goals as closely as possible. Remember, just because you can’t make it to the gym doesn’t mean you should throw your whole diet out the window!

There is nothing worse than starting to feel better, overdoing it and then winding up sick again the next day.  Take things slow and hopefully after a few days you will be fully recovered and ready to continue with your progress in the gym.  Listen to your body, if you start with 10-15 minutes of light cardio and feel overly fatigued, that is your body signalling for more rest.  If you have given your body the time it needs to recover, you should be back to your normal strength and endurance in no time!

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