Working out when sick

When applied correctly with sufficient time allocated to rest and recovery, regular physical activity promotes general health on many levels - from boosting the immune system to helping alleviate chronic pain.

And it’s not just about physical health either! Through multiple biochemical pathways, regular exercise positively influences mental health, and is often used in therapy of anxiety, chronic stress and depression.  

So, as a preventive measure, exercise is undoubtedly great.

But what to do when you’re unwell? Should you “sweat it out” and push through despite fighting symptoms of sickness or experiencing an injury, or is it wiser to rest completely? And if you do rest, are any changes required for your nutrition protocol?

These are some of the questions we get quite often - so today’s blog is all about exercising and dieting (or not!) when feeling under the weather. 

Spoiler alert: there are no black and white answers here, so always assess your situation carefully and get advice from your health practitioner! However, the tips below can steer you in the right direction and prepare you for some common scenarios.

Tip #1: Don’t get frustrated

Honestly, don’t! Whether you caught a nasty virus before even starting a new program, or an old injury started playing up in the final weeks, do your best to not get too overwhelmed and upset.

Life happens - and by recovering correctly, you’ll get back on track! Stressing yourself out and dwelling on disappointment and frustration isn’t going to help you - instead, it can slow down the healing process.

Here are some words of wisdom from our stunning long-term client Megan Goddard:

“I’ve been sick for almost a week now, and as a result haven’t exercised this entire time. I also don’t have a definite time frame of getting back into it. Of course, I am frustrated that I’ve had this setback, because I love training and seeing great results. However, I keep reminding myself of the following:

  • Despite getting sick every once in a while, I always get back on track - and this time will be no exception!
  • I can’t change what has happened - so I might as well focus on recovery as per doctor’s orders. I am trying to stay as positive as possible - and being a part of the BBR community has helped me so much with this mindset!
  • I can still focus on nutrition, even when unable to train, and maintain my progress by nourishing my body appropriately.

I hope this helps anyone struggling with sickness or injury!”

We honestly couldn’t agree more - and importantly, this brings us to the next tip…

Tip #2: Listen to your healthcare team

Plain and simple: if you sought out health advice and your health professional prescribed rest, please adhere to this recommendation!

If you’re feeling “well enough”, it doesn’t hurt to ask about alternatives to your usual physical activity patterns. For example, if a certain injury doesn’t allow you to lift heavy, you may still be able to go on walks, or do some types of exercise.

However, the best course of action is always to ask - not assume! Your health is such an important asset, and it’s not worth risking it unnecessarily in any circumstances.

Tip #3: “Above the neck” rule

Many experts agree that if you’re feeling ok overall and are only experiencing “above the neck” symptoms while sick, you may be able to exercise! This is known as the “above the neck” rule, or a “neck check”. 

Such symptoms include:

  • A mild sore throat
  • Nasal congestion
  • Tearing eyes
  • Sneezing
  • Mild headache

So if the “neck check” worked, you may still be able to exercise if you wish! Just always remember that these symptoms may still turn into something more serious - so you may want to opt for a home workout to avoid spreading the germs to others.

It’s still advisable to get an “all clear” from your doctor though, as well as take the exercise intensity down a notch. For example, if you had an intense HIIT session planned, go for a light walk instead. If lifting weights, reduce the workload and don’t aim for any personal bests while recovering. It may also be a good idea to opt for a restorative workout instead, such as yoga or Pilates.

And remember that you don’t have to exercise even if all your symptoms are “above the neck”! Resting is most certainly an option if this is what your body needs - and many health practitioners would argue that for a short-term sickness this is a preferred course of action.

Tip #4: DO NOT exercise with these symptoms

There are certain symptoms that you shouldn’t exercise with - or else you may unnecessarily prolong your recovery period or even suffer health complications.

These symptoms include:

  • Fever (body temperature above 98.6°F/37°C) - exercising when feverish may lead to dehydration and further increase the body temperature. In addition, your coordination and judgement may also be impaired - which is calling for injuries.
  • Persistent cough - exercising with a cough increases the risk of spreading your illness, as well as puts your cardiovascular system under increased stress
  • Gastrointestinal symptoms such as diarrhea and vomiting - as dehydration will be almost inevitable
  • Or if you have the flu, even if you’re not experiencing a fever

Additionally, if you have an injury which is aggravated by a certain type of physical activity - stop your session and consult a doctor!

Tip #5: Prioritise nutrition

You may not have complete control over your exercise regime - however, you still get to make conscious choices when it comes to nutrition!

The most frequently asked question we get is whether you should decrease your calorie intake when sick, and in most cases the answer is NO! Here are some factors to consider:

  • Your body needs extra energy for recovery, and reducing your intake - especially if you’re already in a calorie deficit - is unlikely to be advisable for a short-term illness
  • Even if you’re in a calorie surplus, unless it’s a major one, it makes more sense to stick to your routine rather than reversing to maintenance and then back, all in a space of a couple of weeks at the most! This breaks up your consistent habits while not really having a major impact on your progress.
  • If you’re in a calorie surplus and are experiencing a long-term condition that prevents you completely from exercising, then you may need to reduce your intake gradually if you want to avoid fat gain. Monitor yourself and make adjustments in small increments (50-100 kcal) every couple of weeks if required. 

There is, of course, the opposite scenario that occurs often - loss of appetite related to sickness. If that’s the case, do not force-feed yourself, however do try to hit your recommended protein target! Protein is extremely important for recovery, so stay as close to your goal as you can. Then, have as much of the rest as you can manage, focusing on nutritious foods, as well as some little treats to boost your mood!

Conclusion

Follow the tips above and take as much time off as needed for your body to fully recover - and you’ll be back at it soon!

Don’t rush your recovery and take an opportunity to stop, reflect and set even bigger, better goals for the future. This way, you’ll be more motivated than ever when you’re ready to jump back into the routine!

Much love and speedy recovery,

Liz and Team BBR 

xxx