Colds are an inflammation of the upper respiratory tract caused by a viral infection. They’re pretty common - most of us experience them from time to time, but what does this mean for our training?
I get a lot of questions from you guys around autumn and winter time around the topic of colds, flu and other illness:
“Can I still exercise? Should I take a break? How much? What can I do? How can I get well quicker?”
It's important to remember that I am NOT a medical professional, but as an exercise professional and wellness coach, I can give you the following advice…
How We Catch Colds
Ideally, you'd avoid getting sick in the first place. We usually catch colds from being around or in contact with other people who are carrying a cold virus.
Whether or not we actually get sick after exposure to a cold virus depends on a number of factors. For example; if you smoke, don't get enough sleep, or are under a lot of stress, you are more likely to become unwell when a cold virus enters your body.
In contrast, if you eat a nutrient-rich diet, manage your stress levels, and get adequate sleep, you stand a stronger chance of fighting off the virus before it makes you unwell. Unfortunately, even if you consistently exercise, eat well and stay healthy, sometimes you just get sick. Sure it sucks, but it isn't necessarily a bad thing…
If you get sick less frequently than once a year, or only get sick when you have a holiday from work/training/childcare, that’s cause for concern. This suggests that your heightened stress levels may not be allowing your immune system to function properly.
Over the years I’ve noticed that it’s very common for my clients to suddenly get sick just as they’re about to take a holiday… it’s like their body just goes “Finally! A chance to do some housekeeping. Cue inflammation and phlegm, let’s have a clear-out.”
Likewise, an excessively clean lifestyle that doesn't expose your immune system to pathogens could leave it dangerously unprepared for when you really do get sick. A little bit of "bad" really can be good for you.
Myth buster: You can't catch a cold from being cold, going outside with wet hair, or getting caught in the rain.
Can I Exercise With A Cold?
To answer this question you'll need to analyse your symptoms. Some indicate that you’re still fine to work out, others are a definite no-no.
You can train if you’re experiencing:
✓ A blocked or runny nose:
✓ A sore throat;
✓ Relatively mild coughing/sneezing;
✓ Symptoms that only affect you “above the neck.”
I’d recommend that you always listen to your body. Even if you feel okay to work out, you should still approach exercise with mindfulness and caution.
When NOT To Exercise
Exercise is likely a bad idea if you’re experiencing:
✗ Fever or high temperature;
✗ Body chills and shivering;
✗ Body, joint, or muscle aches;
✗ Nausea or stomach upset;
✗ Extreme fatigue;
✗ Swollen lymph glands.
In the case of these symptoms, seek medical advice. You’re probably in need of bed rest, and should wait at least a few days after your symptoms have gone until resuming intensive exercise.
Your doctor will be able to assess your individual symptoms and prescribe accordingly.
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Guidelines For Exercising With A Cold
1) Stick to mild to moderate intensity exercise. Anything high intensity will probably inhibit your immune function and make you feel worse. Low levels of exertion have been shown to improve mood and reduce some symptoms.
2) Keep the duration of your workout under 45 minutes. Do 10 minutes if that’s what feels right. Exercising for too long will affect your body’s ability to fight the infection.
3) Train for health, recovery and mood. This isn’t the time to be aiming for personal bests, or an insane pump – that kind of stress increases levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which could work against your immune system.
4) Check the side-effects of any medication you’re taking. Some decongestants, or over-use of asthma medication (asthmatics should be extra-careful in these situations) can increase heart rate.
5) Reassess the situation as you go. What are your symptoms? Are they better/worse? How do you feel? Know when to call it a day.
When To STOP Training
If you experience any of the following symptoms during training, you should STOP immediately and seek medical advice:
✗ Increased congestion (ie snot/mucus);
✗ Difficulty breathing & excessive shortness of breath;
✗ Coughing or wheezing;
✗ Chest tightness or pressure;
✗ Light headedness or dizziness;
✗ Difficulty standing or balancing;
✗ Loss of vision or hearing.
It’s important to stay aware of how you’re doing throughout any exercise session, particularly when you’re under the weather.
Can You Sweat Out A Cold?
Exercise can be a fantastic preventative measure against illness. In fact, those who regularly do moderate intensity exercise are at the lowest risk of infection and disease. However, rigorous exercise without good recovery actually increases your chance of illness.
Studies have shown evidence of immune suppression in athletes, who frequently push themselves to their training limits. It’s also not uncommon for those on extreme weight-loss programmes to become unwell easily.
Weight loss should always be gradual to protect your immunity. It’s important to take care during training, and ensure you're recovering well between sessions. Your health is always more important than losing weight quickly.
Exercise has not been shown to reduce the severity or duration of a cold, nor has any medical treatment. There is absolutely no evidence to suggest that it's possible to sweat out a cold.