Most every winter all of us succumb to a cold or the flu once or twice. And in this time of sickness our mind may play tricks on us. We may start feeling guilty about not doing our regular workout and show concern about losing all of that hard earned fitness we have gained over the previous few months.
Or we may have just got back into a regular fitness routine and are afraid that if we stop now for that cold we may not start up with exercise again for some time. Others swear that an exercise session in the gym will help us 'sweat it out' and make us recover from that infection faster. What does the latest medical research say?
Exercise definitely affects the immune system which is fighting whatever viral infection you have. High intensity exercise (such as heavy weight lifting or high heart rate cardiovascular training like cycling, rowing, running & aerobics) has been linked with suppressing the immune system1. Which means that if you workout at a high intensity you may actually be making things worse!
The good news is that low intensity exercise (very light weights and low aerobic heart rate training) MAY stimulate the immune system. So if you workout at all with a cold, make it a VERY light workout.
The Americans follow a 'neck check' 2 rule for exercise with a cold. If the flu symptoms you have are ABOVE the NECK such as runny or stuffy nose, sneezing, or a light soreness in the throat; proceed with CAUTION with your exercise schedule starting at half of the regular intensity. IF after 10 minutes your head is clearing and you feel a bit better you can continue. IF though your head pounds and you feel worse, stop and give up on exercise for that day and rest.
If the symptoms you have are 'below the neck' such as aching muscles and a hacking cough, diarrhoea, vomiting or chest congestion DO NOT workout that day and rest up. Working out places stress on the lungs and heart. If the heart and lungs are already under stress through an infection then exercise will just stress the body more and may actually lengthen the time it takes to recover from that cold.
Similar advice comes in from across the Tasman where Richard Telford, a doctor at the Australian Institute of Sport says "if one of our athletes has a mild sore throat, we postpone the hard session they may have been going to do and do a light workout instead. Sometimes the day after the light workout the person is feeling better, but if we had gone on with the hard workout, almost every time the person gets worse, and misses more training." 3
So if you have a cold, you won't lose very much or any fitness at all if you rest for a week or so, and the best exercise for a cold may be REST!
Cool Running 29.10.01. This article first appeared on Peter Mellow's NZ Fitness web site and is reproduced by permission of the author.