Should you work out when you are sick?

This time of year folks get sick more. The sun is less and less available for us to process Vitamin D and as northern hemisphere residents living indoors now we are sharing air and colds and flus spread quickly. We also have less access to fresh fruits and veggies, giving us less healthy vitamins and all that leads to people getting sick more often.

Clients come to me this time of year with a cold and ask, “Should I work out today?” The answer is, “It depends.” There are lots of variables and sometimes it is ok, sometimes not.

I remember about six years ago I was preparing for a half marathon and about a week prior I got a bad cold. It got worse and worse and turned into a chest infection, bronchitis and required antibiotics. We got it fast and I started to feel normal quite soon. I went in to see my doctor as per his orders for a final check before the race. I was surprised to hear my doctor tell me I could not race as I felt absolutely fine! Turns out that one of my lungs still had fluid in it and although I felt great, my body was still sick.

My doctor advised that I could have a heart attack and die on the finish line. I thought he was over exaggerating but some research showed that he was 100% correct. Still, at the time, I didn’t believe him and I insisted on racing, promising that I would ‘take it easy’ and watch my heart rate. If I felt off, I would stop. He said that of course it was up to me, but he advised against it.

I raced. After a few kilometres I looked at my watch and my heart rate. Normally I race with my heart at around 155 beats per minute (BPM). My watch told me I was at nearly 170 BPM. As a male in a race (read: idiot), I chose to ignore that information, as I felt fine. I wasn’t fine. My heart was working super hard to keep up with my normal pace because one of my lungs was compromised and this indeed is what kills otherwise healthy people at the finish line of marathons.

So the answer to the question – I always say to play it safe in this regard and ask you what the benefit is. Lots of folks advise this – if it is above the neck and mild, probably ok to work out. If it is below the neck, do not work out.

I like to go a little further. If you have had the cold a while, feel on the road to recovery, it is not in your chest, no fever and your doctor says it is ok, then a light workout can help you breathe deeper and feel better. You are probably no longer contagious and can do some light cardio, light weights and a good meal after can do you a world of good. Be sure anyway (as always) to wipe off your equipment and anything you have been in contact with, with a cloth and the solution provided by your gym.

If you have had a chest cold and are still coughing and sick with a fever, for the benefit of yourself and others, stay home! If the cold is just coming on, then for sure, stay home! Plenty of fluids and rest are the order of the day.

When you work out hard you actually create a stress (a good stress) for your body to overcome and recover from, but if you are currently really sick or getting really sick then you could just be adding too much for your body to do and you will just get more sick, faster.

As I said, what is the benefit? Will this workout make you feel better or more sick? Should you really just be at home in bed? Best to be cautious and get well, go for a light walk instead or just stay home and avoid getting everyone else sick.

Scott McDermott is a personal trainer and owner of Best Body Fitness in Sylvan Lake.

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