It's that time of year when the seasons change, temperatures drop, and people go crazy with Christmas shopping. It’s also the time when we tend to pick up those nasty winter bugs and colds. If you’re fit and healthy, hopefully, your superhuman immune system kicks in and destroys those bugs before you feel too bad. If you exercise regularly, these colds and illnesses can get in the way of having a workout.
The question that always pops up (and attracts many opinions) is… Should we train when we're ill? As personal trainers, it’s something we ought to know to provide the best advice to our clients. Some say yes and recommend doing loads of cardio to ‘sweat it out’ (never a good idea as this doesn’t work), while others say to stay well clear, but what should we do if we get ill? Carry on as normal or take a break until we're back to full strength?
Before we run through some recommendations, here's a little bit of information about how exercise affects the immune system... After just one session of prolonged vigorous exercise, the body becomes more susceptible to infection. Running for miles on end, for example, will temporarily depress the immune system for up to 72 hours. Ever heard of endurance athletes getting sick after races (maybe you’ve had the same), that's why. You may not be an athlete, but, if you do lots of tough, long exercise sessions, your immune system is going to be suppressed. If you keep performing lots of prolonged, vigorous exercise each week, you could actually be suppressing your immune system for weeks on end!
There is a plus side to vigorous exercise though…
- If kept brief, your immune system isn't affected in the same way. In fact, just one moderate-intensity exercise session can actually boost immunity in healthy people.
- If exercising for long bouts isn't something you need to do, switch to moderate exercise and some resistance training to help strengthen your immune system; obviously, when you're healthy and well.
- When training for a long-distance event, let's say a 10k run, it’s best to have a mixture of long easy/moderate runs with a few shorter intense intervals to ensure your immune system doesn’t crash.
So, what sort of illnesses are we talking about?
The most common ones are called Upper Respiratory Tract Invaders
- Throat infections and middle ear infections
- The dreaded flu
All these can make us feel pretty rubbish, but does that mean we should call in sick and head straight to bed? Depends on the person, although I’m sure some of you have fellow co-workers that love any excuse to get off work! With a mild illness, you can go about your day as normal with a little sniffle and moan to the people around you. Should we train with a common cold then?
First off, any form of low-intensity exercise like walking (preferably outside), bike riding (the same), gardening etc. have all been shown to help you feel better. Even when you’re ill, which is something to think about doing.
We’re not doctors and don't know your symptoms, so these recommendations should be taken as common-sense guidelines. Always listen to your body and decide if you're able to work out or not.
Another thing to think about is, do you really want to spread germs around and make other people sick? Day 1 of sickness isn't always the same as day 7 of sickness; ideally, take each day as they come and make a judgement on that day.
Here are a few general recommendations based on the first week or so of illness which you can pass on to your PT clients.
Day 1 of illness:
Day 3 of illness
- Stick to low/moderate-intensity exercise with symptoms like a sore throat, coughing, runny or congested nose.
- No exercise at all when experiencing muscle/joint pain, headache, fever, malaise, diarrhoea, or vomiting. You're feeling like hell, so why bother anyway?!
Day 5 of illness:
- If no fever or malaise and no worsening of “above the neck” symptoms, stick to light exercise (6 out 10 intensity) for 30-45 minutes. This includes a mixture of resistance training and cardiovascular exercise.
- If body temp >37.5-38 C or increased chest discomfort, diarrhoea, vomiting, do not exercise!
Day 7 of illness:
- If no fever/malaise and no worsening of initial symptoms, have a go at some moderate exercise (up to 7 out 10 intensity) for 45-60 minutes. This includes a mixture of resistance training and cardiovascular exercise.
- If fever and symptoms are still present, go and see your doctor; you’re probably feeling terrible, so go get it sorted.
- If fever and other symptoms improve, wait 24 hours, then return to exercise.
- If new symptoms appear, go to a doctor (can you see some common sense coming into this?)
- If there’s no relief from your symptoms, avoid exercise and go to your doctor.
- Look, as we said earlier, we’re not doctors, but some illnesses can indicate some serious infections, so use commons sense. If you're not improving, go and see someone.
We’d also recommend you ease back into exercise too…
Keep it in proportion to the length you're ill for. If you were sick for 5 days, take 5 days to slowly build back up. Make sure your clients don’t destroy themselves on the first session back, as they’ll most likely prolong their illness or make it worse.
Types of exercises to avoid:
Types of exercise you could do:
- Endurance training at vigorous intensity
- High-intensity interval training
- Lots of volume (sets and exercises) resistance training
- Sprinting or power activities
- Heavy strength training (max effort type work)
- Team sports (because they usually involve a mixture of the above, plus you’re going to spread germs to your teammates)
- Moderate exercise that doesn't push your heart rate high (anything 8 out of 10 or more is a no, no)
- Low-intensity cardio work e.g. walking etc. (up to 7 out of 10 if you’re not feeling too bad)
- Low/moderate-intensity resistance training. I’d recommend reducing the weights and performing fewer sets. You can do the same resistance workouts but reduce everything by 50%. Don’t worry, you won’t lose muscle if you have some easy days; you may see some benefits too.
In summary, your symptoms should be your guide. If you feel like training, go for it! Just keep it low/moderate in intensity. Really, the aim is to get some blood pumping and make you feel less under the weather! If you can only manage a light walk for 15 minutes, then that's ok too. Do what feels best.
If you've got the worse man flu ever, there's nothing wrong with putting your feet up and binge-watching Game of Thrones either! So, there you have it… The next time you have a sniffly client, suffering from a winter bug, you’ll know what advice to give them.