Every day we are exposed to bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites – there is really no escaping these critters! The most common invaders are upper respiratory tract infections, or URTIs, giving you conditions like cough, colds, influenza, sinusitis, tonsillitis, sore throat and middle ear infections. Thank goodness our bodies come equipped with an army to fight these foreign invaders. We have 2 types of immune systems: innate and adaptive. Our innate immune system is our non-specific, first line of defence, and includes things like physical barriers (eg mucous membranes), chemical barriers (eg stomach acid), and natural killer white blood cells. Interestingly, women tend to have stronger overall innate immune systems, which is why they often do better than men when it comes to colds. The there’s the adaptive immune system, a more sophisticated groups of white blood cells (T cells and B cells) that kick in once the innate system has been overcome. They even have memory, meaning if they come into contact with a bug once, they will “recognize” it if you come across that same bug again, they will stage a more efficient and faster attack the next time around. Pretty stealthy little army, I say!
So what about “working out”? Well as you probably know, not all workouts are created equal. There is low-intensity and high-intensity, and everything else in between. And what is low to one person may be high to another. And this is where your perceived level of exertion can help guide you. Use a scale from 1-10, where 1 is no exertion (think sitting/lying down), and 10 is all-out max effort exertion. In general, a workout that makes you feel 3-6 on the scale (or low to moderate intensity) will probably leave you feeling energized. A workout that feels like 7-10 (high intensity) will probably kick your butt, leave you feeling worse, and may prolong your illness. Studies have shown that we are more susceptible to infection after prolonged vigorous activity because it temporarily depresses our adaptive immune system for up to 72 hours. This is why many endurance athletes, like marathoners, get sick right after a race. And besides exercise, there are many other factors that will influence your immunity and how well you can shake that cold, such as your age, sleep quality and quantity, sex, and other physical and psychological stressors.
That all being said, here are some guidelines on how to proceed with exercising when sick:
- IF you have systemic symptoms like deep chest cough, fever, malaise, diarrhea, vomiting, enlarged lymph nodes, muscle/joint aches/pains --> NO EXERCISE.
- If these symptoms persist for more than 4 days after trying home remedies and rest --> see a doctor, as some illnesses can indicate a serious infection.
- IF you have localized symptoms like cough, runny nose, sore throat and nasal congestion --> LOW-MODERATE EXERCISE (3-6 perceived level of exertion) for 30-45 minutes, preferably outdoors.
- Activities to consider when you are sick -->
- Activities to avoid when you are sick -->
Some additional tips:
- Are you currently healthy and want to keep it that way so that you can stay on track with your workouts? Check out my article on 7 Immune Boosting Superfoods to add to your arsenal of defences this season!
- Caught that cold already and looking to nip it in the bud? Check out my article on Natural Remedies for Cold/Flu.
- Make sure to ease back into an exercise routine in proportion to the length of your sickness. That is, if you were sick for 3 days, take 3 days to slowly increase back to the intensity of your workouts before you got sick.
Remember that your body has an innate wisdom that almost always guides you back to health. You just need to slow down and listen sometimes.
Here’s to keeping healthy and active!
- Dr. Crystal