You may or may not have been on the receiving end of the throat/chest infection which is sweeping the area. If you have, I would advise total rest and relaxation (and possibly a trip to the GP) and if you haven’t, then lucky you! I can say (not from experience but from feedback) that it is a particularly nasty infection. At times like this, there is always the question of whether you should continue to train. In certain circumstances training simply isn’t possible, or it’s fairly obvious that training will only make things worse. There are, however, times when you are ill but are unsure if you can continue. Well, this blog post intends to help bring some answers.
I want to start this piece by saying that I am not a medical expert and that much of the knowledge and advice will be from other sources (listed below). If you have any feedback on the post, please let me know and I will amend the article. So, you’ve been training hard to achieve a particular goal whether that be losing body fat for health or simply because you enjoy training! Either way, the time has come when you’ve caught a cold but don’t know whether to continue. What should you do?
First things first, the immune system. The immune system is what keeps us healthy and has many lines of defense for protecting the human body against pathogens and infections. These include physical barriers such as mucus and chemical barriers such as white blood cells. Exercising at high-intensity subjects the body to a large amount of stress which lowers the effectiveness of the immune system. The length of time depends on the amount and intensity of exercise but can range from no decline in a usual workout to 72 hours if you undertake a marathon, for example. This is where the debate of exercising with a cold begins. As your immune system is already under stress-fighting an illness when you have a cold, the addition of more stress from exercise could be too much for the body to handle and, as a result, it could make things worse.
A recent study by the American College of Medial Sports sought to determine if training with a cold prolonged the illness or worsened the effects. They did this by subjecting patients to a cold and then splitting the recipients into two groups; one group performing cardio at 70% maximum heart rate for 40 minutes per day and the other doing nothing. The results indicated that the low-intensity training did not impact the length of the cold. Furthermore, the results showed that there wasn’t a worsening of the symptoms. This suggests that low-intensity exercise doesn’t impact the immune system and that if you have a runny nose, sneezing or a scratchy throat i.e. anything above the neck, exercising at low intensity should be ok.
If, however, you have any symptoms below the neck (chesty cough, sore muscles, fever, vomiting, etc) then it is recommended that no exercises are undertaken, even low-intensity exercise. This is because the impact on the immune system is too great and hinders recovery. With mild symptoms above the neck, sweating may be helpful in flushing out the system, but be sure to continue to consume plenty of water.
The best forms of exercise when you have a cold are walking, jogging, and yoga and the worst forms of exercise are endurance sports, weight lifting, team sports, or anything in the cold. If you have a fever (considered anything above 38 degrees in adults) you should avoid all exercise. For those of you who don’t like the appeal of not lifting weights for a period of time, some light bodyweight exercises (press-ups, sit-ups, etc) could be a good alternative to keep your strength without placing too much pressure on the body.
If you can’t exercise because the symptoms are too bad, you may be unable to exercise for some time. The general rule of thumb is three days for a sniffle, seven days for a full-blown cold, and two weeks for an infection, however, these times will vary depending on the severity of the illness. One of the benefits of exercising is that despite suppressing the immune system for a period when the body recovers, the immune system recovers stronger. When returning to exercise after a period of illness, it is best to take it slowly and build up. Whilst you may feel much better, the body will still be fighting the remaining particles of infection so take it easy.
We hope this article has been useful in helping you determine if you should train when ill. The general rule is you can train with an illness above the head but at low intensity and no for anything below the neck.