Working Out During and Post Illness

It's that time of year again.  Everyone seems to be getting sick.  In fact, this year's flu has set records. And you know how it goes...  Just after you're cleared from the flu, you get a chest cold, then a weird sinus something after you thought you were through with it all.  While you focus on zinc, vitamin D, sleep, and proper nutrition to get yourself healthy again, here are some facts about when to return to your workout regimen.

What happens if we workout while sick?
Basic Physiological Processes
So what happens when we workout is that the stress of the workouts tend to create the microtears in our muscles. These microtears from the stress are a normal process of damage and repair. The body uses inflammation to signal and start to repair the damage caused by working out. Inflammation is obviously initiated and maintained by the immune system until all tissues are repaired and strengthened against the stress that was placed on the body.</p>
In addition, stress from activity especially sustained activity elevates cortisol levels. Cortisol helps mobilize the body’s supply of fat and glucose to provide fuel for the muscle, but it is an anti-inflammatory and immunosuppressive. For example, cortisone is a derivative of the same class of drugs, the glucocorticoids, and is used therapeutically to reduce pain and inflammation in specific areas of the body.
Our immune system is the way that our body fights infections and other pathogens that make us sick. So you can see how diverting the immune system away from fighting infections towards repairing muscles may be problematic. I have seen it many a times where someone is sick and decides to workout and they get even sicker. Similarly, you can even almost be over an illness and workout a couple of days after it has gone away and then it will come back.</p>
This is similar to antibiotics. When doctors prescribe antibiotics they tell you to continue to take them for the whole amount of weeks and not to stop even if you feel better. Likewise, even if you do not feel sick anymore the body is still fighting the last remnants of infection within your body. So when you subject it to heavy stress from working out or trying to come too quickly to exercise it may depress the immune system such that the infection comes back. Sometimes more strongly than the first time.
How to work yourself back into exercise
Work slowly back if you are used to high intensity exercises. For a cold, a 1-2ish week buffer between getting back to full exercise is likely good.
For more severe illnesses such as influenza or pneumonia, I would take at least 2-3 weeks after all of the symptoms have subsided to work back into things with full intensity. The problem with going back to high intensity right away is that even if all of the symptoms have gone away there is still bacteria or viral loads in your body, just not enough to make you symptomatic. So high intensity exercise can actually depress your immune system enough to make the illness come back, sometimes even stronger than ever. Thus, it is best to be conservative with this.
If you’re using a typical 3x a week type of exercise schedule, start with about 20-30% of your typical full workouts, and ramp up by 10% until after about 2-3 weeks you will reach 100%. Best to be conservative than get an illness again and be out another couple weeks if not more.

For more information regarding the intensity of workouts while sick, tips on recovering, and to read the rest of the article, click here.  Please remember, if you are or suspect yourself to be contagious, you do not want to be infecting people around you. This is not good gym etiquette. Please stay home and let yourself rest and recover.  Hit it hard once you are all healed up and ready to go!