Did you know that the #1 reason people take sick leave is due to chronic low back pain? Well, exercise has been proven to reduce sick leave for these individuals. Water aerobics also reduces sick leave for pregnant women dealing with low back pain. Exercise programs combining both high and low intensity activities have been proven effective for cancer patients going through chemo too. It helps these patients “prevent and/or minimize physical inactivity, fatigue, muscle wasting and energy loss.” Amazing!
But what about exercise during a head cold or following a stomach virus? Should we exercise when we start to feel sick or stay home and rest? And how soon following an illness should we try to get back in the saddle with our exercise routine? How quickly do we lose fitness when we’re inactive? Let’s discuss both scientific findings and common sense…
The Impact of Regular Exercise on the Immune System
Research on exercise immunology shows that there are positive adaptations in the immune system with moderate physical activity. For those who routinely exercise in moderation this results in overall fewer sick days, including fewer common colds and upper respiratory infections; however, more exercise is not always better for boosting immune function. There’s an upper threshold that most people’s bodies will tolerate.
Studies show that heavy exertion lasting longer than 90 minutes can have negative impacts on the immune system for the next 3 to 72 hours, meaning an individual is more susceptible to viruses and bacteria while recovering from intense exercise and over training.
General Recommendations for Exercise During Sickness
“In general, if symptoms are from the neck up, moderate exercise is probably acceptable (and some researchers would argue even beneficial) when an athlete is sick, whereas bed rest and a gradual progression to normal training are recommended when the illness is systemic.”
*If you’re looking to get rid of a head cold check out my former post: Quick Tips to Kick a Cold
The Grey Area of Exercising While Sick
Although general recommendations are helpful, they’re just that – general. Not specific to your unique situation and how your body handles illness. For me, a head cold is almost always improved with some light to moderate exercise. My husband is a different story though. I try to refrain from judgement. If he feels a cold or sickness coming on and tries to exercise he’s almost always achy and more sick feeling later that day, So, it’s important to do some trial and error with exercise and your health through the years to learn how your own body responds to things.
Let’s talk through some common sense approaches for figuring out whether you should exercise or not when you’re feeling sick…
Ask Yourself These Questions When You’re Ill
What kind of sickness am I fighting?
How tired and rundown do I feel at this moment?
How often do I typically exercise?
How do I feel after exercise when I have this kind of illness?
Give Exercise a Try If…
- Your illness is “above the neck” – meaning a common cold or mild sinus infection
- You don’t feel overly winded walking up and down the stairs
- You’re getting good sleep at night
- You feel that you can go to the gym and keep germs from spreading (i.e., washing hands, wiping down equipment, covering coughs/sneezes, etc.)
- You have a normal appetite and are well hydrated
- Exercise tends to energize you
- You’re currently in a regular exercise routine and know how to modify its intensity
Types of Exercises to Ease in With
- Your regular routine with more rest following exercise days
- Your regular routine but lower in intensity (i.e. lighter weights, longer rest intervals between sets, shorter total workout time, etc)
- Restorative or gentle yoga
- Walking or light jogging
- Low-impact cardio for 30 minutes or less
- Light to moderate weight lifting
- Dancing or aerobics class
Hold off on Exercise If…
- You’re contagious with a stomach virus or the flu (wait at least 48 hours after extreme vomiting and/or diarrhea before trying light exercise)
- The virus or bacteria is systemic (i.e. impacting your lungs and oxygen transport)
- The infection or illness has you feeling extremely fatigued and incapable of performing your normal daily tasks
- You’re dehydrated
- You’re unable to eat a normal diet
- Exercise makes you feel worse, even after a light routine
- You’re highly contagious and/or unable to control the spread of your germs
How Quickly Will I Lose Results if I *Don’t* Exercise?
A week or two off from the gym won’t do any major damage to your fitness results but you will probably feel more fatigued getting back into the groove for the first couple workouts before quickly resuming your former levels of strength and endurance. Generally speaking, cardiovascular capacity will begin to decline more significantly after two weeks and you may lose some muscle mass after three weeks of not doing any strength training.
As with anything, consistency is key so two weeks off from the gym will have a much different impact on someone who only works out once or twice a week versus someone who works out daily. Think of it this way: The person who is less active doesn’t have as much to hang onto for their fitness so will decline in fitness more rapidly. The person who is more active has stronger cardiovascular function and more muscle mass so will potentially have an easier time regaining ground in their workouts.
*Stay well this season and make positive, proactive decisions for your health. Cheers!*
Yours in health and wellness,