Ask the Trainer: Should I Workout When Ill?

Hi Neil.  What is your opinion on working out when sick with a cold/recovering from a cold?  Best to wait till all the way better, or do you feel it is OK to workout while still not feeling 100%?  I guess that was more like 3 questions, would love your insight though... -W.D.

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Whit - It's hard to say.  I have seen this work both ways.  One time a client was telling me she thought she was coming down with something.  I asked if she was sure she wanted to hit a workout.  I told her it could make her worse.  She thought about it for a couple of seconds and decided to go forward with the workout.  I didn't see her again for about 6 weeks after that.  In those six weeks she became so ill that she wound up in the hospital (intensive care) with a really bad flu bug.  Sometimes we don't think of the flu being all that dangerous.  However, 30,000 Americans die from it annually. She came close to becoming one of these victims.  Thankfully, she regained her health but it took quite a while.  Like about 4 months to return to 100%. 

Was the workout to blame for this?  I doubt it.  This is a pretty intense example, but I am convinced that others I have worked with over the years have been set back by trying to push through workouts while already ill.  Remember, working out (especially GPP style) stresses your bodies resistance levels.  If your resistance is already low due to an infection (flu, cold, etc.) a workout may push resistance levels down too far to recover from.  This could undoubtedly make a potentially mild infection much, much worse. 

That being said, I have also seen people storm GPP workouts with infections (cold, flu, etc.) and become energized and recover faster than normal.  Many scientists speculate that increased endorphins and blood flow from exercising may be the reason some get better faster.  Who knows?  

Generally, I recommend taking a few days off as soon as you notice you are becoming ill. If working out can prolong or exacerbate an illness, I say don't take chances.  A couple days of rest will not set your goals for working out back much, if AT ALL.  When it comes to your cardiovascular system, exercise scientists have discovered that the VERY FIRST signs of de-training aren't even detectable for over 7 days.  When it comes to your anaerobic system, it took exercise scientists double that (over 14 days) before they could detect the VERY FIRST signs of de-training.  So, never be afraid to take a few days off when you need it.     

My rule of thumb, take a few days off as soon as you notice you are getting sick.  Give your body a chance to use the extra energy you've built through becoming fit and healthy to combat the illness.  After you've given your body a chance to get ahead of the illness and ONLY after you've begun to feel better, THEN come back and try a workout.

Now here is the thing, if during the first part of your workout you begin to gain energy, THIS is a good sign.  You are probably through the worst of it and it is probably OK to continue the workouts from there on out.  HOWEVER, if during the first part of your workout your energy stays the same or falls off, STOP the workout immediately and take a few more days off. 

Working out (GPP style) will cause your body to release endorphins. The endorphins you release by exercising should pick you up and make you feel much better.  If you don't feel a natural pick up, OR if you are feeling about the same as when you started, it is a bad sign.  You probably aren't over the worst of your illness yet.  It is best to back off your workouts for a couple more days and let your body take the energy you were planning on using for the workouts and put it toward fighting your illness.