Over the years, many studies have linked regular exercise with lower risks of catching a cold or flu. Immune function improves with exercise, and a better immune system means fewer colds.
So, when it is best to avoid the gym for fear of making things worse? A tricky question, but one which can be answered by assessing your type of illness, your current fitness level and the exercise you plan on doing.
Is it Really Just a Cold?
While regular exercise is proven to strengthen the immune system, short-term effects of a vigorous workout compromise it. Working out with a cold might be fine, however, something more serious might be at work. Here are a few questions to ask yourself before you push ahead:
- Are you achy? With a common cold, you will typically get a runny nose, a cough, a sore throat – those kinds of things. However, the flu is more serious: when your body aches, this might be a sign that you have flu. You are best off resting and see how you feel over the coming day or two.
- Are you lightheaded? Again, with a cold, you shouldn’t be lightheaded or dizzy. Even if this is a one-off event, exercising when you feel dizzy can be dangerous and should be avoided.
- Have you been sick, or do you feel sick? Feeling sick could be a sign of stomach flu, food poisoning or countless other ailments. If you’ve been sick, or are feeling sick, hold off going to the gym: the last thing you want is to be sick over the cardio room floor!
- Do you have a headache? Headaches are common when you have a cold, and usually nothing to worry about. If you’ve only had it for a little while, and painkillers take away the pain, by all means, do your workout. However, if it is persistent, exercising might make it worse.
- Do you have a fever? If you have a fever, it is best to get some rest and avoid the gym altogether. Any kind of exercise will increase your body temperature. This will likely make you feel worse and can also be dangerous.
What Kind of Exercise Will You Be Doing?
If your typical routine involves an hour of high-intensity cardio or running a half-marathon, you’ll probably need to skip the gym – especially if you have chest problems, such as tightness, shortness of breath or a cough. In fact, if you haven’t already, you should probably go see a doctor to get it checked out.
However, if you are going in to lift weights – such as squats, you will probably be okay with a cough. This is because you will have long rests between sets and are won’t struggle for breath as you would when sprinting or jogging for long distances. In contrast, if you’ve ever done heavy squats with a head cold, you’ll know it’s not nice! The pressure makes your head feel like it will explode, so certainly worth avoiding.
Is Your Energy Level Sufficient?
Naturally, if you feel lethargic, you won’t want to spend an hour running, lifting weights, or pumping it out at a spin class. Your body is also telling you that it needs to recuperate and that you should rest.
Have You Worked Out with a Cold Before?
If you’ve had a similar cold before, and going to the gym made you feel better – no problem. if it made you feel worse, you might want to give it a miss. However, if you do decide to go to the gym, drop the intensity a little. As we said, even if you don’t feel too bad, strenuous exercise compromises the immune system, short-term, so a full-on work out has more chance of making things worse. Jog instead of run, walk instead of jog, shorten your session, lower the weight, have longer rest periods – you get the idea.
Always be sure to drink plenty of water, and if you feel worse after, don’t pressure yourself to go to the next session if you are still poorly.
Improve Your Immune System
Prevention is better than cure, as they say. Therefore, anything which improves your body’s ability to fight illness and infection is welcome.
Here are some tips to help you build up your immune system to lower your chances of catching a cold.
- Eat more plant-based foods. We often hear to eat more fruit and veg, but in reality, we should eat more plant-based foods, in general. This includes nuts, seeds, grains, beans, and legumes. Many studies link increased fruit and veg intake to improved immune function.
- Exercise regularly. If you’re reading this article, the chances are you’re already doing this – so good job!
- Get enough sleep. Various studies conclude that poor sleep habits lead to increased risk of catching a cold.
- Ensure you’re getting a healthy dose of branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) in your diet. Studies have linked higher BCAA consumption to lower chances of infection.
However, before you start spending your hard-earned cash on BCAA supplements, remember that most high-protein foods already contain decent amounts of these essential amino acids.
If you’re already exercising regularly, you might already be taking some form of protein supplement. Even if the packaging doesn’t say so, whey, casein, and soy protein already contain high levels of naturally occurring BCAAs – around 3 – 6 grams per 25-gram scoop, as explained in this detailed guide.
Take Home Message
Reducing your chances of catching a cold should be your priority. As it happens, it is not all that difficult: simply eat a diet rich in plant-based foods, exercise regularly and get some decent sleep. Follow these rules and you will avoid trouble, for the most part.
However, if you do come down with an illness, assess the severity of it before going to the gym. Use your own experiences to judge whether you will cope and if in doubt, simply give it a miss.