fitness · health

Workouts and Colds

I woke up the other day with a sore throat for the second time in just over a month. I hate to interrupt my training schedule, especially the running. I am so slow at building up my distance that taking too much time out will set me back. And since I think of all of my fitness training as part of an overall commitment to taking good care of myself, it would be counterproductive to push on in ways that make me worse off.

And it’s just not all that inviting to go out into the cold when you have akleenex cold. I’m not the right kind of doctor to be dishing out medical advice, but I’ll tell you what I decided to do based on a bit of internet research I did.

Most of what I read said to “listen to your body.” But they also suggested, as a general rule: If it’s above the neck only, then go for it. If it’s below the neck (i.e. in your chest and affecting your breathing, accompanied by any stomach issues like vomiting or diarrhea, fever, muscle ache), then it’s probably a good idea to take a break.

Of course, the main issue is that no one wants to make the cold worse by compromising the immune system. A 2003 study by the American College of Medicine showed that moderate intensity exercise doesn’t make a cold worse. However, the same study showed that high intensity exercise appears to weaken the immune system in people with colds.

Based on the little I read, I decided to go running that morning. I kept to my usual pace (it’s not all that demanding) and broke it up (as I always do at the moment), with short periods of brisk walking. I felt good when I was out there. And I even had the energy to go to a hot yoga flow class a couple of hours later. I’m glad I did.

Another good piece of information my reading yielded is that people who engage in regular moderate exercise don’t get as many colds. I like the idea that an active lifestyle can boost your immune system. It makes sense that part of overall fitness is a strong immune system.

One thing about colds is that if you do NOT have a cold, it’s kind of unpleasant to be around people who do. I’m a bit germ phobic at the best of times, so I feel this intensely.

Especially at places with shared equipment (like gyms), or contained spaces like the hot yoga studio, it’s inconsiderate to push ahead with my schedule if I am sneezing and coughing and sputtering all over the place. If I feel well enough to work out but appear sick enough to make others nervous to be around me, common courtesy usually nudges me in the direction of modifying my routine to minimize contact with other people.

Of course, the usual stuff applies: whether you have a cold or not, wash your hands regularly; if you have cold, don’t overdo it (because intense activity does make it worse); and pay attention to your symptoms. If they get worse, you might need to take some time off. And you might need to see your doctor.

This discussion is all premised on the view that a strong immune system will make you less susceptible to colds.  Jennifer Ackerman has suggested otherwise.  Meanwhile, if you don’t shake my hand this winter, I won’t shake yours, okay?

Some sources:

WebMD: Exercise and the Common Cold

Got a Cold: Should You Work Out?

About.com: Can I run with a cold?

To Run or Not to Run? What to Do When You’re Sick

2 thoughts on “Workouts and Colds

  1. I agree with you completely. Moderate cardio exercise with a slight head cold is fine, although you should be considerate of others at the gym. I almost never get sick anymore, even when both my wife and daughter are sick. I did have a cold for about two days over the holidays. On the first morning, I thought for the first time in over a year that I might be really sick. On the second day, I felt better and was itching to get to the gym but decided it might be unwise, as my body still ached. I lift heavy weights and I have found that if you have almost any significant muscle ache or fatigue, you can injure yourself. So I resisted the urge to work out on the second day as well and was actually proud of myself for doing so. For me, the urge to work out now is almost as irresistible as was the former urge to mow down on crunchy cheesies. Well, maybe not quite that intense – but close. Anyway, I was surprised that I was almost completely better on the third day, worked out and felt fine. The next day, I wasn’t really sick at all. So, yeah – the benefits of working out definitely include resistance to colds and vastly increased recuperative powers. It’s totally unexpected and really quite amazing to you when you finally realize that your health in these ways is just so much better than it was in the past.

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  2. I don’t think there’s ever been a time in my life when I wasn’t regularly physically active. There’s also never been a time when I was overly susceptible to infections either. So I don’t have any before and after comparisons. But for the infrequent times when I do get sick (usually a throat or throat & sinus infection about once every three years or so) yes, I do still work out, and yes, working out makes me feel better. Running, roller skating, yoga… it all makes me feel better. (Although I have sometimes found that lying down for meditation/relaxation at the end of a yoga session when I have a head cold completely undoes all of the good, head-clearing effects which the preceding active portion of the yoga practice bestowed upon me.)

    The last time I had stomach flu (1985) I spent the night worshipping the porcelain god in my hotel room. In the morning I competed in cross-country running junior nationals (a 5K race) on an empty stomach–on a race course which was covered in 8 inches of snow with drifts up to 2 feet high in some places. It was a brutal, exhausting race, and my head hurt. I finished last–but I finished the race. And by dinner time I felt fine. (Not that anecdotal evidence is worth much of anything at all in the overall analysis, but that was my experience of working out with a “below the neck” infection.)

    Not sure about the last time I had a chest infection. I think that was 1977.

    Ackerman’s op-ed is a fluff piece designed to boost sales in her book. The “cold science” she discusses is not new. Also: healthy immune systems don’t react to a virus that isn’t there. “Strong” does not equal “overactive”.

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