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Should I Exercise When I Am Sick?

Do I have your attention?

Biggest thing I fight with people on a daily basis is them being sick and coming into the gym saying “I am going to work it off’.

Well lets not do that, see you being sick not only affects you but everyone in the gym that is around you, not to mention those coming in later to use the same equipment you just infected. Don’t just take my word for it as being a professional but lets try to simplify it with the help of you reading it with the help of my friends at precision nutrition.

Should you exercise while sick?

Let’s get one thing clear from the start: there’s a difference between “working out” and “physically moving the body.”

A structured workout routine — one where you’re breathing heavily, sweating, working hard, and feeling some discomfort — awakens a stress response in the body.

When we’re healthy, our bodies can easily adapt to that stress. Over time, this progressive adaptation is precisely what makes us fitter and stronger.

But when we’re sick, the stress of a tough workout can be more than our immune systems can handle.

Still, there’s no reason to dive for the couch the minute you feel the sniffles coming on. Unless you’re severely out of shape, non-strenuous movement shouldn’t hurt you — and it might even help.

What do I mean by “non-strenuous movement”?

Well, it might include:

  • walking (preferably outdoors),
  • low intensity bike riding (again, outdoors),
  • gardening,
  • practicing T’ai Chi.

In fact, all of these activities have been shown to boost immunity. 

They aren’t intense enough to create serious immune-compromising stress on the body. Instead, they often help you feel better and recover faster while feeling under the weather.

That’s why Dr. Berardi often recommends low intensity non-panting “cardio” when suffering from colds. Done with minimal heart rate elevation, preferably outside, these activities seem to offer benefits.

What about “working out”?

Non-strenuous movement and purposefully working out are different.

Plus, as you probably know, not all workouts are created equal. There are low intensity workouts and high intensity workouts — and all sorts of workouts in between.

But what’s low to one person might be high to another. So how can you decide what level of intensity counts as strenuous?

Let your own perceived level of exertion be your guide.

In general, a low to moderate intensity workout will leave you feeling energized. A high intensity workout, on the other hand, delivers an ass-kicking.

If you’re sick, it makes sense to avoid the ass-kicking.

Let’s take a look at why.

How exercise affects the immune system

Exercise may play a role in both our innate and our adaptive immune response.

Here’s how:

  • After one prolonged vigorous exercise session we’re more susceptible to infection. For example, running a marathon may temporarily depress the adaptive immune system for up to 72 hours. This is why so many endurance athletes get sick right after races.
  • However, one brief vigorous exercise session doesn’t cause the same immune-suppressing effect. Further, just one moderate intensity exercise session can actually boost immunity in healthy folks.
  • Interestingly, chronic resistance training seems to stimulate innate (but not adaptive) immunity. While chronic moderate exercise seems to strengthen the adaptive immune system.

In the end, here’s the pattern:

  • Consistent, moderate exercise and resistance training can strengthen the immune system over time. So, by all means, train hard while you’re healthy.
  • But single high intensity or long duration exercise sessions can interfere with immune function. So take it easy when you’re feeling sick.

Exercise, stress, and immune function

A group of scientists gathering data on exercise habits and influenza found:

  • People who never exercised got sick pretty often.
  • People who exercised between once a month and three times a week did the best.
  • People who exercised more than four times a week got sick most often.

Enter the J-shaped curve theory.

In simple terms, being sedentary or exercising too much can lower immunity, while something in the middle can improve immunity.

J-curve_diagram-01

The role of stress

Exercise isn’t the only factor that affects the immune system. Stress plays a big role too.

Let’s take a look at the different stressors a  person might face on any given day.

  • Physical stress: exercise, sports, physical labor, infection, etc.
  • Psychological stress: relationships, career, financial, etc.
  • Environmental stress: hot, cold, dark, light, pollution, altitude, etc.
  • Lifestyle stress: drugs, diet, hygiene, etc.

Stress triggers an entire cascade of hormonal shifts that can result in chronic immune changes.

  • Acute stress (minutes to hours) can be beneficial to immune health.
  • Chronic stress (days to years) can be a big problem.

So, if you’re angry, worried, or scared each day for weeks, months, or even years at a time, your immunity is being compromised. And you’re more likely to get sick.

Sickness and stress

It’s pretty obvious that if you’re actually sick and fighting an infection, your immune system will already be stressed.

And if you add the stress of prolonged vigorous exercise, you might, quite simply, overload yourself. That will make you sicker.

Plus, your history of infections can influence how the immune system responds during exercise.

A healthy body might adapt to all that. But a body that’s fighting an infection is not a healthy bod

Now that we got all the best advice on paper, lets go outside for a walk or light jog before we decide to come into the gym. Get healthy first, then exercise hard after, no more coming in sick, it’s not good for you or the people around you in the gym.

 

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