Is it all right to exercise when I'm ill?

As much as we try to live a healthy lifestyle, there’s a good chance that most of us will at some point catch a cold or flu. Even when we do our best to exercise, get enough sleep, eat well and take other measures to avoid getting sick, the reality is that being trapped indoors during the colder months makes us particularly vulnerable to picking up germs from friends, family and colleagues.

Once that infection has taken hold, our focus abruptly shifts to relieving symptoms and trying to minimise the illness’s effect on our daily lives. One question many people ask is whether it’s all right to exercise when you’re ill. As much as we’re eager to get better as quickly as possible, many of us loathe missing a workout and falling behind on our weight loss or training schedule.

While working out on a regular basis does help improve your immune system in the long run, in the short term it can divert your body’s energy away from the important process of getting well, with very intense activity proving particularly detrimental. Hence, in order to make a call on whether or not you should exercise while under the weather, it’s necessary to consider the type of illness you have and its severity, as well as the type of exercise you plan to do.

What type of symptoms do you have?

The general rule cited by many experts is that you should skip your workout if your symptoms affect areas of the body below the neck. For instance, stay in bed if you’re suffering from respiratory symptoms such as a bad cough or a tight chest, fever, aches or chills, an upset stomach or diarrhoea. These symptoms indicate a slightly more severe illness and require more rest and recuperation time  – exercise (especially intense exercise) can make the situation worse.

However, if your symptoms are above the shoulders – such as nasal congestion, a sore throat, sneezing or a mild cough – then carrying on with your workout shouldn’t prove too much of a risk. In some cases, moderate cardio activity can actually help relieve symptoms of nasal congestion, and so can be particularly beneficial for a cold. There is even some evidence that increasing your body temperature through exercise can help combat harmful bugs in much the same way a fever does, while the increase in circulation can help shake off feelings of sluggishness and help circulate disease-fighting antibodies around the body.

Take it easy

Don’t try to push yourself too hard, though – your body still needs adequate resources to recover, so keep your workout at a slower or more moderate pace to avoid adding to the stress on your system. Listen to your body and judge your exercise accordingly. The sooner you get well, the sooner you can resume all your normal activities, so it’s better to take it easy in the short term in order to help the process along.

If you exercise at a gym or any other shared facility, spare a thought as well for your fellow gym-goers. Germs thrive in warm, wet conditions, making fitness equipment and locker rooms prime breeding grounds for any number of nasty bugs. If you’re ill, try to avoid passing on your germs by always coughing or sneezing into your arm or sleeve (these are less likely to touch shared surfaces than your hands) and always disinfecting equipment and other surfaces you touch with antibacterial spray and clean paper towels when you’re finished (simply wiping with a towel isn’t enough, as your towel can carry germs).

Do you exercise when you’re ill, or are you happy to take time off to rest and recover?

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