Exercising when ill may not be such a good idea

When you get up for work Monday morning, you notice there is a tickle in your throat and you are a bit more tired than usual. By Tuesday, your throat is sore, your joints ache and you feel lousy.

You have rearranged your busy schedule to fit a workout at least three-to-four times per week. You've set up an appointment with a gym's trainer, the babysitter is lined up and you moved your lunch hour. The last thing you want is to get sick.

Is it true that working out can actually help fend off a cold or flu? What should you do? You're afraid if you slow down, your whole week will fall apart. Maybe if you ignore it and just keep going full force, the whole thing will just go away on its own.

"If you continue to exercise when you don't feel well, you could end up missing more days of your workout," said Jessie Green, a New York-based personal trainer and dancer. Dr. Stephen J. Nicholas of Lenox Hill Hospital's Nicholas Institute of Sports Medicine and Athletic Support agrees, "Working out when ill could lead to very serious problems, including heart disease," he said. "We don't know why, but some viruses that have settled in other parts of the body can move to the heart if you exercise too much." This can cause viral cardiomyopathy, a very serious and sometimes fatal condition that weakens the heart muscle.

Although this type of condition is rare, it is best not to take chances. Furthermore, there are other important reasons to avoid a workout when you are sick. Illness and fatigue can cause us to relax our diligence about using proper form when exercising and fatigue can increase our level of clumsiness, potentially leading to muscle strains or other injuries.

What does a trainer typically tell a client who is not feeling well? How do they and the client gauge when to continue working out and when is time to let the body rest?

"If an individual is not feeling wellexperiencing aches, fever, cough, congestion etc.I would suggest they stop working out for at least a day or so to let the body rest. When he or she starts to feel better and has more energy, then it's okay to resume their regular workout," said Kurt Murray, AFAA certified personal trainer.

Another helpful indicator is your heart rate. "Monitor your heart rate, if the heart rate is within its normal range, then exercise is fine," said Murray. "But if your resting heart rate is not normal or if it takes too long to achieve your target heart rate, then you're still ill and shouldn't be working out. "The RPE [rating of perceived exertion] scale -- another test to determine if the heart is beating at the proper rate -- or the 'talk test,' an ability to hold a conversation while working out without being out of breath, are also useful methods of determining whether or not you are still ill."

Generally speaking, follow the body's cues when ill. If you are more tired than usual, have body aches or fever-your body is trying to tell you it needs to rest.

Is there any truth to the old maxim that exercising can actually "sweat out" milder ailments, such as a cold?

"I don't know about 'sweating it out,'" said Dr. Nicholas. "It's true that exercise may help in some cases." To the untrained eye, however, symptoms of very serious viral conditions can look identical to symptoms of milder illnesses.

If you choose to exercise when ill, it is important to keep your heart rate low (under 100-to-110 beats-per-minute), Dr. Nicholas advises. Mild walking and working out with light weights is fine, as long as it feels comfortable to you.

Jessie Green follows this advice for her own workouts. "When I don't feel well, I avoid exercises that bring my head down below my pelvis because that can make me lightheaded," she said. Green also advises against performing level changes for the same reason. If you are congested, upper body work may be uncomfortable, therefore it may be best to perform lower body exercises.

Some illnesses stick around for a long time. For example, winter colds are often followed by days or weeks of congestion and coughing. Does that mean days and weeks of no exercise? Not necessarily.

"Exercising after a cold can actually help alleviate symptoms," said Dr. Nicholas. "For example, vigorous exercise can [sometimes] help open nasal passages." Again, if you aren't sure, follow the recommendations of a doctor.

Current research indicates that dedicated exercisers won't have to worry as much about becoming ill compared to their less active counterparts. According to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), people who work out on a regular basis experience fewer illnesses. Workouts seem to boost the immune system. One study showed that women who walked briskly for 35-to-45 minutes, five days per week, experienced about half the days with cold symptoms as a sedentary control group.

When a cold or the flu does come along, it can be difficult to take care of ourselves in a world where a "tough it out" philosophy is much more accepted than slowing down. Altering or stopping our usual workout routines when we are ill and letting our bodies heal, however, exemplifies the phrase "less is more."


Discuss This Article