We’ve all been there – you wake up with a scratchy throat, a runny nose, or a general feeling of malaise, and you wonder, “Should I still work out today?” It’s a common dilemma, and one that has sparked a lot of debate in the fitness community. On one hand, exercise is known to boost the immune system and make you feel better in the long run. On the other hand, working out while sick can sometimes do more harm than good. In this blog post, we’ll delve into the science of working out while sick, exploring when it’s safe and beneficial and when it’s best to rest and recover. We’ll also provide evidence-based recommendations from our trainers and sources to help you make informed decisions about exercising when under the weather.
Understanding the Immune Response
It’s important to understand how our immune system responds to illness. When you’re sick, your body is already working hard to fight off the invading pathogens (viruses, bacteria, etc.). This immune response involves the production of various immune cells and molecules, like white blood cells and antibodies, to combat the infection.
Exercise can have both positive and negative effects on the immune system, depending on the intensity, duration, and timing of the workout. Let’s break down the science to help you make the right call.
The Benefits of Exercise on the Immune System
- Acute Effects:
- Exercise can temporarily increase the circulation of immune cells in your bloodstream, helping your body detect and respond to infections more efficiently.
- It promotes the release of endorphins, which can improve mood and reduce stress, potentially benefiting the immune system.
- Chronic Effects:
- Regular physical activity has been associated with a reduced risk of chronic diseases, such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and obesity, all of which can weaken the immune system when present.
- Long-term exercise can enhance the overall function of the immune system, making it more effective at fighting off infections.
The Downside of Exercising While Sick
While exercise can offer numerous immune-boosting benefits, pushing through a workout when you’re sick may not always be the right choice. Here are some considerations:
- Increased Risk of Infection Spread:
- When you’re sick, especially with contagious illnesses like the flu or COVID-19, exercising in public spaces can increase the risk of spreading the illness to others.
- Immune System Overload:
- Intense or prolonged exercise can place additional stress on the immune system, diverting resources away from fighting the illness and potentially making you feel worse.
- Risk of Complications:
- Exercising with certain symptoms, such as high fever, severe coughing, or difficulty breathing, can pose risks of complications, including dehydration, fainting, or worsening of the illness.
Now that we have a grasp of the underlying science, let’s outline some evidence-based recommendations for working out while sick. Here is what our head Kaizo X trainer, Migma Tamang, has to say:
Here’s a general guide on how to approach exercise when you’re not feeling well:
- Assess Your Symptoms: “Above-the-neck” vs. “Below-the-neck” Rule.
- If your symptoms are “above the neck” — like a common cold, mild headache, or a stuffy nose — light to moderate exercise shouldn’t harm you and could even boost your mood. Activities like walking, yoga, or a light bike ride might feel good and help you stay active.
- If your symptoms are “below the neck” — such as chest congestion, cough, stomach troubles, or body aches — or if you have a fever, widespread rash, or fatigue, it’s wise to rest instead of exercising. These symptoms could be signs of a more severe infection that could be exacerbated by exercise.
- Listen to Your Body
- If you feel miserable, your body likely needs rest to heal. Pushing through an intensive workout routine when you’re feeling very ill could stress your body and weaken your immune system, making it harder for you to recover.
- Reduce Exercise Intensity
- If you decide to exercise, consider reducing the intensity and length of your workout. Think of it more as movement than a workout. Trying to perform at your regular intensity when you’re sick can prolong your illness and can even be dangerous.
- Stay Hydrated
- Illness often comes with increased risks of dehydration, especially if you’re experiencing symptoms like vomiting or diarrhea. If you’re adding exercise to the mix, proper hydration becomes even more crucial. Be sure to drink plenty of fluids.
- Practice Good Hygiene
- If you’re working out at a public gym while sick, be considerate of others. Use hand sanitizer, wipe down equipment after use, and maybe even consider wearing a mask to prevent spreading germs.
- Consult a Healthcare Professional:
- If you have underlying health conditions or are unsure about exercising while sick, consult a healthcare professional. They can provide personalized guidance based on your specific situation.
- Avoid Gyms and Crowded Spaces:
- If you decide to exercise while sick, do so at home or in a private space to minimize the risk of spreading illness to others.
- When to Resume Regular Exercise:
- Once your “below-the-neck” symptoms diminish, you might still need to take it slow. Consider starting with 50% of your normal workout (in intensity and duration) and gradually increase based on how you feel during and after exercise.
Scientific Research and Sources
To support these recommendations, let’s take a look at some scientific studies and sources that shed light on working out while sick.
- “Exercise and the Regulation of Immune Function” (Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 2017):
- This comprehensive review explores the complex relationship between exercise and immune function. It highlights the benefits of regular exercise in enhancing immune responses.
- “Exercise and Respiratory Tract Viral Infections” (Exercise Immunology Review, 2020):
- This review examines the effects of exercise on respiratory tract infections and provides insights into the potential risks and benefits of working out while sick.
- “Physical Activity and Immune Function” (Nutrition in Clinical Practice, 2010):
- This article discusses the acute and chronic effects of exercise on the immune system, emphasizing the importance of moderation during illness.
- “The Impact of Exercise on Infections and Immunity to Infections” (Nature Reviews Immunology, 2017):
- This review delves into the mechanisms by which exercise influences immune responses to infections and offers valuable insights for individuals considering exercising while sick.
The decision to work out while sick is a nuanced one, influenced by various factors, including the nature and severity of your illness, your overall health, and your exercise routine. While exercise can have positive effects on the immune system, it’s essential to be cautious when you’re feeling under the weather.
Remember that rest and recovery are crucial components of healing. When in doubt, consult a healthcare professional for guidance tailored to your specific situation. By listening to your body and making informed choices, you can strike the right balance between maintaining your fitness goals and prioritizing your health during illness.
Your long-term health and well-being should always be the top priority.