Let's be honest: if you're a fitness junkie, you probably have snuck into the gym with a runny nose or a low temperature, thinking that a quick sweat sesh could make you feel better. We used to think nothing of going to the gym when feeling under the weather, didn't we?
However, our social expectations and hygiene standards have changed dramatically since the onset of the global pandemic. Now, when a person sneezes across the room, we brace our masks like we are expecting a shockwave from a nuclear explosion. When we walk up to barbells and treadmills, we approach with caution. Is it safe? Did we see them wipe it down, or should we do it again? Perhaps we should change into a hazmat suit before getting on the treadmill. All of this uncertainty has led to big and important questions about where we should exercise when sick and even if we should exercise at all.
Thankfully, at the height of the pandemic, sick people learned to stay home from the gym despite their symptoms' severity and rest to protect others from getting the virus. However, life is inevitably beginning to return to normal. Covid itself seems to be transforming into a softer, less terrifying set of symptoms, and people are shifting their behaviours accordingly. That said, any conversation about exercising when sick is tainted with the memory of the pandemic. So, for this discussion, we are merely asking: when sick, do we sweat it out or rest it out?
Before covid, people would tell you that sweating out and moving your body helps you feel better. However, it turns out that piece of advice is based on a myth, according to an article in Medical News Today titled Should You Exercise When You Are Sick? The author of this article says that exercising when you're unwell is not a cure. It won't necessarily hasten your recovery; however, it shouldn't necessarily stop you from exercising when you're feeling under the weather.
The consensus I found across multiple studies suggested a clear distinction between when you can exercise and when you shouldn't. The distinction is easy to remember and based on where you're feeling your symptoms. Anything located in the head and neck, such as a runny or stuffy nose, headache, or sore throat, and exercising is permitted. You may even "feel" better afterwards. The authors of this article in Medical News Today found that increasing your heart rate and circulation may stimulate your circulation and leave you feeling a bit better.
If anything untoward happens below the neck, you should opt for a rest day (or a couple of days). Illnesses below the neck that would fall in this category are gastrointestinal discomfort, such as diarrhoea and vomiting, which cause a person to lose a substantial amount of fluids and risk dehydration without adding a sweaty gym session to the mix. This advice is pretty common sense, considering very few people feel up to exercising when rushing to the washroom every few minutes. Other issues, such as tightness in the chest, coughing, difficulty breathing, and body aches and pains, are sure signs that you should also rest your body. However, when have these symptoms stopped some of us from exercising? According to Live Science, noticing these particular symptoms should indicate that we stop and rest for a few days. Conducting a self "neck check" (checking to see where the symptoms lie) can help protect your heart and lungs from over-taxing when they are fighting an illness. Adding exercise, which also taxes your lungs and heart, isn't wise.
There are two exceptions to the "neck check" rule: fevers and dizziness. In unmistakable terms, a fever raises your core body temperature, and exercise makes you feel uncomfortable or even sicker. Fever also increases fluid loss, which can leave you dehydrated and alter your electrolyte balance, leaving you feeling exhausted with diminished muscle strength. Dizziness can leave you feeling unbalanced and distract you from focusing on good form when exercising, causing an injury.
When sick, your body's energy stores are depleted by using the fuel available to help fight your illness. According to Live Science, the calories you will burn during your exercise session will come from the breakdown of muscle tissue. This isn't ideal—exercising when sick also inhibits your ability to recover correctly, making it difficult to get back into the gym enthusiastically at your next session.
If you're suffering from any illness below the neck, fever, or dizziness, wait 48 hours and then reassess how you feel before jumping back into your routine. Allow your body the time to recover that it requires so that you can dedicate your full attention and energy to your fitness once more.
Once you re-enter the gym, you must do so gradually and mindfully. First, your hydration must be on point. When you're sick, the body is already using extra fluids to remove toxins, and you may sweat slightly more than usual or even lose fluids from having a runny nose. Therefore, purposefully sip more fluids throughout the day and during your workout. You don't have to stick to just water; you can spice things up by drinking a wide range of liquids that promote a healthy electrolyte balance, such as coconut water, broth, or miso soup.
If you're wondering how to ease yourself into your workout routine, the best advice is to start at 50% of your normal capacity on the first day. That may mean taking a gentle walk rather than running or switching your heavy weights for lighter ones. You could also reduce your workout duration by half. This slow re-entry aims to conserve your energy for healing and allows you to gauge how your body feels. If you feel worse or deflated, take another day of rest until you feel more like yourself. When you return to the gym again, raise the intensity to 75%, and see how your body responds. Stay at this 75% until you feel like you have your strength back, and then resume your usual workouts.
Your exercise choice itself can lead to immune-suppressing or boosting action, so scale your workouts accordingly to avoid becoming at risk for sickness and infection. Moderate-intensity workouts can boost your immunity, whereas prolonged, frequent, vigorous exercise (such as multiple, long HIIT weekly) can decrease your immunity.
You can support your healing by also focusing on your diet and nutrition. Eating fresh fruits and vegetables is also the key to eliminating any nutrient deficiencies that you may have, which could impact your immunity. I suggest eating the rainbow colours daily with your fruit and vegetable selection. This means choosing white, red, orange, purple, and green fresh fruits and vegetables and adding them to your typical breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks.
The conclusion to the question: when sick, do you sweat it out or rest it out? The answer is simple. Do a neck check, and when in doubt, sit it out. If you're suffering from a cough or cold, choose well-ventilated areas (such as the outdoors), or wear a mask around others, to protect them from falling sick unnecessarily. If there was one piece of sage advice we could take from the pandemic, what goes around comes around!
Examples of eating according to the colours of the rainbow:
White: onions, mushrooms, cauliflower, garlic
Green: spinach, broccoli, asparagus, kiwi, avocado, pear
Orange: pineapple, pumpkin, carrots, papaya, potato
Red: raspberries, strawberries, rhubarb, beetroot, cherries, capsicum
Purple: eggplant, blueberries, plums, blackberries, grapes