When I start to feel under the weather I almost always continue to push through my workouts, hoping to spur my body back to health. But am I doing more harm than good? If you get sick, should you take your workout plans off your to-do list?
Obviously no one on death's doorstep is suddenly gonna leap out of their hospital gurney and demand to be taken to the nearest 24-Hour Fitness so they can gun their quads real quick before the next blood transfusion. But what about those illnesses that don't keep us in bed? Like the annoying, but not debilitating, cold you caught from snuggling your sister's kids? Or, what about a lingering, hacking cough that makes your chest burn but doesn't keep you home from work? When you exercise your body when it's not at peak health, does it keep you sick longer? Is it ok to keep shredding when you're down but not out?
Allison Henry, MD, a board certified pediatrician in Los Angeles, is no stranger to wanting to hit the gym as often as possible. A fitness enthusiast and accomplished athlete, she understands how working out might seems attractive when you're feeling run-down. "We all know that exercise helps boost the immune system to help prevent illnesses such as the common cold." Dr. Henry explains. "It is a little less clear whether it is beneficial to exercise when you're already sick. Some gentle-to-moderate exercise can certainly make you feel better by helping to mobilize secretions (i.e. boogers) and stretch out those achy muscles. That being said, it probably isn't a good idea if you are feeling particularly under the weather."
When It's Time to Just Say No
Dr. Henry says if you're experiencing any of the following symptoms you might want to cancel those workout plans and avoid the gym or any kind of strenuous exercise:
- Significant Fatigue
- Dizzyness or Blurred Vision
- Chest Pain
- Respiratory Distress (if it's hard or uncomfortable to breathe)
Spread Kindness, Not Germs
Another thing to consider if you're working out while below par is that you might make other healthy people fall prey to your grody ailment. "The gym is a perfect breeding ground for germs," says Dr. Henry. "There's a lot of skin-to-equipment contact, sweating, and secretions. If you're exercising while ill and using gym equipment, you're definitely going to increase the likelihood that your germs will be passed on." And that's not very sportsmanlike at all. If you are going to the gym when you're feeling unwell, Dr. Henry says to make sure to wash your hands often and try to avoid touching your face. "If you have to sneeze, aim your face into the crook of your arm, not your hands."
Ok, so if I'm not barfing, bleeding, or wheezing, and I hose down all touched surfaces with antibacterial gel, will working out make me sicker longer or help me to get better faster? Dr. Henry says that all depends on the illness, the lifespan of the sickness, and each individual's personal response. "[T]he bottom line is that it's important to listen to your body. This is not the time to 'push through' the workout. Your body doesn't need the extra stress! It's important to rest. If you feel well enough to work out, it's probably ok. If you don't, then don't!"
Finally, Dr. Henry says that getting back on the workout horse after being laid up can take some time. "Start slowly," she says. "Do a little at a time and see how it makes you feel. When you're ready, slowly increase the duration and intensity of your workouts until you're back to your usual stamina and strength."
So use your common sense. Rest, get better, don't be a jerk and get a bunch of other people sick because you have exercise anxiety. I think next time I'm getting a scratchy throat I might take Dr. Henry's advice, postpone my usual workout plans, do a yoga DVD at home, drink some tea, and take a well-deserved break.
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Image: Sarah Olive Bergeson