Exercise and getting sick- 7 things you need to know
Updated: Jul 6, 2021
Having succumbed to the common cold and ensuing congestion it's given time and reason to reflect on how sickness effects exercise and vice-versa. It's been a process of surrendering to the reality of this universally experienced and non life threatening illness by resting and taking a break from my exercise routine. As I do, here are a few of the things I've learnt over 25 years as a personal trainer about exercising and sickness: * THERE'S USUALLY A WINDOW OF TIME BETWEEN FEELING UNWELL & GETTING SICK Often there are a few signs that something is awry- lethargy, dry lips, heavy eyes a slight sore throat. It can be tricky though to notice and heed such signs if busy and stressed. There is opportunity though if you do become aware to rest, modify exercise intensity or duration and/or dose up on nutritious food and drink and supplements and of course rest. Vitamin C is essential for the proper functioning of immune cells. This is why it's a popular go-to at the first sign of a cold, personally I believe it's effective and that I've stopped several colds from developing by dosing up on it. HOWEVER evidence for that is non-existent or mixed at best, additionally there is some suggestion that high doses of Vit C may negate ADHD & birth control medication. Clearly it's best to do your own research and seek medical advice. The point is though to heed the early signs, as least you may be then able to reduce the severity and duration of illness. *MODERATE TO INTENSE EXERCISE DEPLETES IMMUNITY IN THE SHORT TERM This point is understated. We often hear the many, varied and increasingly discovered benefits of exercise but rarely is it pointed out that if you're on the verge of getting rundown and hence sick, a workout of any significant level will likely tip you over the edge. Whats more if you are already unwell the effect of such a workout will probably be that you get even worse. Doubt or uncertainty about whether you're well enough for a workout is likely an indicator that you're not, and need to give it a miss or lower the intensity (that happens fairly often with personal training sessions)
*YOUR HEART RATE AND PULSE CAN BE AN INDICATOR OF YOUR HEALTH You may well be thinking that heart rate and pulse are 1 in the same but stay with me! In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) there are up to 29 different pulse descriptions and they describe not just speed of heart rate- terms like choppy, full, weak, excessive, slippery and wiry are used. The practice of pulse taking in TCM is a detailed and complex means of determining what is happening to a patient and provides a guide as to what method of treatment to use (often acupuncture). In conventional western medicine and in sports science heart rate (measured in beats per minute) is used as a measure of health, fitness and exertion. Having used a Heart Rate monitor to gauge intensity and effectiveness in many personal training sessions and many of my own workouts over the years I've seen how an elevated heart rate very directly reflects acute health and immune levels. Naturally this can only be noticed if heart rate has been regularly observed during a particular activity or at rest, as you then have a yardstick from which to compare. The most stark example of this I've seen was during a regular moderate intensity fitness assessment with a personal training client on a treadmill. Having used a Heart Rate monitor consistently over many months we both had an understanding of what Heart Rate to expect at his comfortable running pace and so were shocked when it shot up by 25 beats within the space of a minute. As there was no obvious explanation I kept checking the equipment, which seemed fine, and the heart continued to beat at the elevated rate for the remaining 4 minutes of the test. He was naturally surprised and wanted an explanation, as he was hoping for a lower than usual heart rate to reflect increased fitness from his consistency and effort over the previous 6 weeks. I was simply perplexed and couldn't offer any explanation to ease his disappointment. He contacted me later in the day to explain he realised what had happened- he'd come down with a virus within 90 minutes of the session and believed it was literally within the space of that minute on the treadmill that his immune system weakened to the degree whereby the virus manifested. Nothing I've seen or experienced since has been so marked but I've certainly dialed down the intensity of many workouts with clients when heart rate is higher than normal. It's been really noticeable to me over the last couple of days how my heart rate is not only need quicker than usual but also unusually peripheral and apparent, as the body does it's best to cope with, and fight the infection. Regular monitoring of heart rate while most popularly used to measure intensity of exercise effort and increased fitness, is on my view vastly understated as a way of monitoring health, immunity and levels of fatigue. Some fitbit users are discovering this use for the device, as explained in this New Science article. *THE 'ABOVE THE NECK RULE' CAN BE A PATHWAY TO GETTING SICKER
This rule essentially suggests that if symptoms are only above the neck then it's ok to exercise, whereas if issues extend to the lungs for example, exercise is a much riskier proposition. I think the overall idea is that it can be good to do some movement if you have only a moderate head cold BUT there isn't enough emphasis on how conservative the intensity of exercise should be. A light walk is probably appropriate. If you do exercise with any degree of intensity it'll likely lengthen the process of recovery.
Experience has taught me that exercising with above the neck symptoms can still invite trouble- so tread (lift or pedal) with caution! *ONCE SICK, WHAT SHOULD YOU DO? A gentle walk in the sunshine and some stretches can help you feel a little better but as we all know rest is priority number 1. If you are congested some movement can be good but most certainly err on the gentle side. * RESTARTING EXERCISE REQUIRES SOME PATIENCE AND TRUST It's amazing how much strength and fitness you can lose within a week or 2 of not working out. That can be really discouraging, however it's important to realise and remember that you can also regain previous fitness levels very quickly. Although you may be keen to get back to your physical best fast, it's best to start conservatively and avoid the temptation of going harder or more often in an attempt to make up for lost time. Trust that by easing back into things and just resuming usual workout frequency your body will adapt again and you'll be back into the swing of things within a week or so. Adopting that conservative approach to restarting your exercise routine is an easier proposition if you've been though that process before. For the less experienced exerciser though it's really important to consider that if you do try and play catch up with your fitness, getting sick again and getting really sore or injured could be the unwanted counterproductive result. *STRUGGLING TO EXERCISE AS USUAL CAN POINT TOWARD A HEALTH ISSUE If you're in a regular exercise routine but find the usual workout more laborious than it should be, there could be many explanations. Reasons could include: lack of sleep, hot weather, too much alcohol, emotional flatness, not recovered from previous workout and coming down with an illness. There's also the possibility there is a more serious underlying health issue which is cause for the struggle. Considering some of the reasons listed above is wise, if however there is no apparent explanation and the flatness is experienced repeatedly it could well be there is something more serious at play. I've had a personal training client complain of lack of strength and energy during exercise and ask my thoughts on what it could be, I couldn't come up with anything, however a blood test did- leukemia. Thankfully she was diagnosed and treated promptly and all was well. Additionally another clients heart rate irregularity, noticed through heart rate monitoring during sessions, was cause for medical consultation. This revealed a genetic issue which required heart surgery. This may sound alarming and shouldn't put people off exercise, clearly though it demonstrates the wisdom in getting any concerns checked out by a doctor, and how exercise has the capacity to really highlight when something is awry. Need more help or advice around how best to exercise for optimal health and well-being? Why not drop me a line.... or check out what I can do for you in the way of or a personally tailored fitness program.
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