Understatement of the week: Creating an exercise routine you can actually stick to is not the easiest thing in the world. Corollary to understatement: Waking up sick on a day you'd planned on working out can be a tad frustrating.
It's tempting to ignore that 'under the weather' feeling and push on regardless. Our minds threaten us with pictures of how much ground we'll lose if we don't train. We're concerned that we're being too soft with ourselves (as one of my friends described it, 'If I stopped training every time there was something wrong with my body, I'd never get anything done!') Or we worry that if we break our routine once, we'll never get back into it.
Sometimes it's actually OK to exercise when ill. Although no-one's been able to prove that you can 'sweat out a cold', if your only symptom is a sniffle, moderate exercise can sometimes help you feel clearer in the short term. Going for a walk is one of the most effective fixes for a headache. But all too often, exercising when you're unwell can make you end up sicker than you started out.
THE EFFECTS OF EXERCISE To understand why this is, it may help to revisit the effect exercise has on your body. Your heart rate rises, your core temperature increases, your body burns fuel faster than usual, you lose water through perspiration, and your respiratory and circulatory systems (as well as the muscles you're working) are all stressed well beyond their normal levels. In short, the demands for your body's resources increase markedly.
In a well-rested, well-nourished body, this is no trouble. When the body is weakened by sickness, however, there's potential for problems. For example, if you're running a fever, your core temperature is already high. Raising it higher by pushing yourself during a workout can be dangerous. In a similar vein, we're told to keep our fluids up when we're sick because with a higher core temperature, it's easy to become dehydrated. Exercising (which increases water loss) makes dehydration more likely.
CONSIDERATION So how do we know when to push on regardless, and when to just say 'no'? If you exercise around other people e.g. in a gym, class, or as part of a club your first concern needs to be consideration for them. Fellow exercisers will not thank you for sharing your bug with them. If you're coughing and sneezing or if you're touching exercise equipment that will be touched by other people it's only polite to stay away until you're no longer infectious. If you're not sure how long this will be, speak to your doctor.
THE NECK CHECK Assuming your illness isn't contagious, however (or that you work out alone), you have more choices. One quick, simple tool for deciding is the 'neck check' developed by Dr Randy Eichner at the University of Oklahoma. With this system, you simply look at where your symptoms are located.
If they're above the neck, e.g. headache, sniffles and/or a slightly scratchy throat, it may be OK to keep exercising but take it very slow. Exercise at about 50% of your usual intensity for the first ten minutes, then stop and see how you feel. If you feel about the same or better than when you started, feel free to continue - gradually raising the intensity. If you feel dizzy, floaty, or in any way worse than you did when you started, however, stop immediately, and give yourself the rest of the day off.
If any of your symptoms are below the neck fever, coughing, nausea, stomach cramps or aching muscles it's better to skip your workout altogether and stay wrapped up in bed. Exercising with any of these symptoms diverts your body's much-needed resources from where they're needed to fight off your illness (in effect, you've joined in the battle on the side of the germs!), and may additionally increase your likelihood of injuring yourself.
ASK YOURSELF "WHY?" Look at your symptoms on a day-by-day basis, and if you're ever unsure whether to resting or exercise, contact your doctor for advice. If you're reluctant to take time off, it can help to step back and ask yourself why you're exercising in the first place. If you're training for a specific event, ask yourself whether it's better to take a couple of days off now, or tough it out and risk having to take a couple of months out of your regime later. If you exercise because it makes you feel better and healthier ask yourself the logic of making your body miserable by pushing it when it's telling you it needs to heal.
If you have any questions about this week's article, please don't hesitate to contact me. Otherwise, until next time, may every day bring you closer to your Optimum Life.
By Tanja Gardner
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Biography: Optimum Life's Tanja Gardner is a Personal Trainer and Stress Management Coach whose articles on holistic health, relaxation and spirituality have appeared in various media since 1999.
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