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Should I Work Out When I’m Sick?

With the Sicktown Express pulling up for a seemingly extended stay in the fall and winter months (and let’s  face it– spring and summer months as well), chances are pretty good we’ll all come down with something sooner or later. After all, we all get sick at some point– and that “some point” usually happens to be when when we’re firing on all six and killing our workouts… or pretty much any time it’s most frustratingly inconvenient.

Good news is, as you’re working out, you’re less susceptible to the stuff you used to be when you were duffing it (I hadn’t been sick in close to a year before I got a mild cold again): Working out does leave you better equipped to beat off a cold and bounce back a little quicker.

So the question is this: Despite all your frustration and worry about lack of progress or even regression, should you work out?

The Working Out When Sick “General Rule”

When you’re sick, your body is working at beating up the virus/bug and diverts energy and resources to combat it, so your energy levels will be down and you won’t be able to maximize your workout like normal and could even make your symptoms worse. There’s a couple different approaches to working out when sick but they’re mostly based on a general assessment of your symptoms followed by personal preference. That said, depending on your symptoms, you may be able to work through it/around it by keeping the intensity down but again, you know your limits. The most important thing is listening to your body and not taxing your system (especially congested lungs) with an intense workout.

The generally accepted rule of thumb is this : “Above the chest (sinus, sore throat), work out, in or below (chest congestion, coughing), take it easy.” Personally, as frustrating as it can be, I take the time off to recuperate with a focus on getting back to it as soon as possible– usually in a couple days.

How Sick Are You?

If you’re dealing with one of these mild symptoms:

  • Runny nose
  • Sneezing
  • Scratchy throat
  • Congestion

You’re probably safe to exercise at lower intensity levels. That means dial it back. Hit up a lower intensity routine. Going hard can lower the immune response and leave you open to slower healing and that can delay getting you back to working out.

If you’re dealing with one of these more severe/nasty symptoms:

  • Fever
  • Dry cough
  • Dizziness
  • Sore muscles (fever sore, NOT workout sore)
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea

Lay off the exercise. Chances are if you’re feeling these symptoms, you want to curl up in a ball anyway but there’s always the hardcore who will try to get out there and prove their mental toughness. Don’t. Heal up and work your way into more intensity as you begin to feel better. You’re your own barometer here. If you feel weird, give it a rest.

Truth is, commonplace and seasonal illnesses come and go and usually wrap up in a week or two in less severe and maybe a couple weeks in more severe cases. You’ll be OK to miss some workouts but keep your nutrition in check so when you’re feeling spry again, you can pick up where you left off. You’ll find you’ll bounce back quicker than you think and P90X or Insanity will be waiting for you when you do.

BONUS! Ounce Of Prevention Worth A Pound of Cure And All That

If I feel I’m coming down with a cold, I down Cold-Eeze like crazy. While not the most delicious cold lozenge, I swear by them and use the “sugar free”. One every 2 hours keeps my symptoms in big-time check and beats a cold back in about 3-4 days. In the mean time, cut your chances of getting sick and having to take a workout time out by either adopting or making the following suggestions a habit:

  • Don’t Pick Your Nose: Picking your nose is gross and socially awkward. And while most people agree, most people still do it. When you avoid “mining for gold”, you’ll  not only help you avoid looking like a 2nd grader in public, you’ll keep the germs you’ve collected out of your body and away from a direct pathway into your body.
  • Don’t Touch Your Eyes: This is tougher but same rule applies. Your fingertips and palms can pick up germs and viruses that are just waiting for a free ride to your exposed soft tissue for a free ride into your body. If you must rub your eyes, use a knuckle or better yet…
  • Wash Your Hands: Age old advice that’s good stuff. I’m kind of a germophobe, so I’ll wash AND use hospital grade 3M Hand Sanitizer. Over-concerned? I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t the butt of a few jokes…
  • Don’t Touch Door Handles In Public Areas: If you’ve ever hit up a public restroom and watched folks who think they aren’t being watched, you’ll notice washing hands tends to be overrated but coughing into hands is the hotness. All that stuff goes straight to the door handle… which is just waiting to hitch a ride to your hand. Use a paper towel if you must use a handly. That or buy a hazmat suit.


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