Wellness Exercise when Sick: Good or Bad?

If you’re addicted to exercise like I am, being sidelined with a cold or flu can be frustrating, to say the least. Exercise when sick: good or bad?

Your motivation may be high, but your body refuses to cooperate. Depending on the severity of your illness you may experience symptoms such as fatigue, headache, nasal congestion, respiratory infection, muscle and/or joint pain.

Exercise when Sick: Good or Bad?

Exercise when sick: good or bad?

Under normal healthy conditions, your immune system does a remarkable job of defending against foreign invaders in the form of pathogenic bacteria, viruses, and parasites. Your first line of defense is the innate immune system made up of physical barriers such as the mucous lining in nasal passages, chemical barriers such as stomach acid and protective cells such as natural killer cells that destroy unfriendly organisms on contact.

Your second line of defense is the adaptive immune system that is made up of specialized cells originating in the thymus gland and bone marrow. These white blood cells not only destroy pathogenic organisms and prevent their colonization, but they also provide long-lasting protection by creating what’s called immunological memory.

After initial contact, these specialized immune cells are imprinted with a memory of the pathogenic organism’s structure, enabling a more rapid and enhanced response during future encounters. This complex mechanism of acquired immunity is the basis for all vaccinations.

There are three main factors that affect immune system function: 

  1. Age – As you grow older, your hormone production declines and the thymus gland shrinks causing a diminished immune response to invading pathogenic organisms and harmful substances. This increases your susceptibility to the common cold and flu, as well as slowing the rate at which your body heals from trauma.
  2. Gender – Research has shown that women generally have a stronger immune system than men because estrogen enhances immunity. However, when an imbalance in hormones occurs due to menstruation or prolonged use of contraceptive pills, immune function in females can become erratic. This may explain why more women than men suffer from autoimmune disorders.
  3. Stress – The body has very effective mechanisms for handling any stress you may encounter in daily life. But, if that stress becomes overwhelming and unrelenting, the resulting immune suppression will increase your vulnerability to infections. Sources of stress can include poor nutrition, environmental pollution, bad relationships, lack of sleep, a toxic workplace and too little or too much exercise.

Exercise and Immunity

When it comes to exercise and its effects on immune function, studies have shown that strenuous endurance activities such as marathons can suppress immunity for a period of up to 72 hours post-workout. While moderate intensity strength training has been shown to actually stimulate and strengthen immune function.

How often you participate in physical activity also influences your frequency of developing infections. Research shows that sedentary individuals, as well as those who exercise strenuously more than four days per week, tend to get sick most often.

So, it appears that moderation is the key with no more than 3 – 4 days per week of high-intensity exercise. However, if you do happen to come down with a mild cold, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to avoid exercise altogether.

Moderate exercise therapy is often recommended to patients with compromised immune systems because it can help prevent secondary infections by stimulating the proliferation of lymphocytes and natural killer cells, as well as elevating mood and preventing muscle wasting. Moderate exercise under these circumstances can include Hatha yoga, Tai Chi/Qi Gong, walking and low-intensity swimming.

Listen to Your Body

Whenever you get sick, use your symptoms as a guide for modifying the intensity of your workout routine. If you only have a sore throat, headache or congested nasal passages, then moderate exercise is permissible. If however, you’re experiencing fever, fatigue, respiratory infection, vomiting, diarrhea, enlarged lymph nodes and muscle or joint pain, then it’s probably best to abstain from all forms of exercise until you fully recover.

In conclusion, if you want to exercise when sick, listen to your body to find the minimum effective dose that will support your immune system to get you back on the road to recovery!

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