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Should you exercise when you are unwell?

Spring has barely arrived, and your exercise regime is right on track … and there you are … with a runny nose and a sore throat.

Bad luck!

If you are a social creature, and have small children, you will be subjected to millions of different bacteria, viruses and fungal infections daily. If you use public transport, you are guaranteed to sit or stand next to someone who has a cold, since everyone doesn’t stay at home when cold symptoms appear.

Our immune system is designed to fight all these germs, thank goodness, otherwise we would not have survived childhood. Kind of. It’s in childhood that we develop our immune system in a way that means that it is good for children to get ill. It doesn’t help us, though, despite the fact that women have a better immune system than men.

So, what do we do?

There are different ways to exercise. How do you know if your exercise is too high in intensity? Exercise is meant to give you energy, not make you lethargic. (Lethargy=abnormal mental fatigue or reduced mental capacity, where you just want to sleep.)

Exercise may involve sweating and struggling for breath – this kind of exercise creates stress in the body and our bodies can combat this stress – when we are well. But when we are unwell, this kind of exercise can be catastrophic, since a weakened immune system cannot handle stress from outside while it is fighting the cold.

What you can do when you have a cold:

  • Take a walk
  • Cycle outside at a leisurely pace
  • Yoga

These activities have also been found to be restorative.

Avoid these activities:

  • Weight training
  • Running
  • Interval/hill training

A few words about how exercise affects our immune system:

Following intensive training, the immune system deteriorates. Marathon runners might for example have a lowered immune response up to three days after a completed marathon. It is a well-known fact that many runners become ill after their races. Of course, the immune system will not be affected by a single workout session in the same way as a marathon, but view it as an example. Weight training over an extended period of time actually strengthens the immune system, while occasional intensive sessions or extended sessions will do the opposite and put stress on the immune system.

Here are some facts about how often people get ill, based on how often they exercise:

  • Those who never exercise get ill pretty often
  • Those who exercise 1-3 days a week are least affected by illness
  • Those who exercise more than 4 days a week are most affected by illness

In other words: find the right level. (At Trainimal Woman, we generally recommend our clients exercise 3-4 times per week.)

Apart from exercise, stress also affects our immune system. There are different kinds of stress: 

  • Physical stress: exercise, infections, hard physical labour
  • Mental stress: relationships, work, money
  • Environmental stress: cold, darkness, heat, poor ventilation
  • Lifestyle stress: dieting, drugs, medication, poor hygiene, lack of sleep

There is also acute and chronic stress. Acute stress: a deadline, getting somewhere you need to be on time or running for the bus. Chronic stress, on the other hand, will go on for months or years.

If you suffer from chronic stress, you are likely to be ill very frequently, since your immune system is already affected and at rock bottom. Add exercise to that …  and you are most likely heading for a breakdown. The immune system will crash.

Excessive exercise might also affect the immune system.

Other factors that will affect you are your age (unless you exercise and eat well), sleep (if you are not sleeping enough, you will be particularly sensitive to anything that goes around), obesity, your mood (people suffering from depression get ill more often), how long you have been exercising (the longer you have been exercising, the better your immune system).

Symptoms to look out for and how to reason:

Runny nose, cough, sore throat: you can take walks (but not power walks!)

When you have a temperature, aching limbs and pains or a stomach bug: don’t exercise. 

If your temperature is above 38 degrees and you have a cough: don’t exercise

If the above symptom persist after 3 days: contact your GP

When you have been ill and want to get back to exercising: take it a bit easier for as many days as you have been ill.

Further tips for the flu season:

✅Wash your hands

✅If you have symptoms from your neck down: stay at home

✅If you have a cough: stay at home

✅If you do not feel like exercising – trust your instinct, stay at home

How to prevent colds:

✅Take moderate exercise and give yourself time to recover

✅Review your sleeping habits

✅Try to keep stress under control

✅Avoid dieting

Updated January 11, 2022

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