Have you ever wondered why during the winter months, we battle more colds, flus and other illnesses? In the past couple of months, the common cold, flu and the infamous stomach bugs have surrounded me at work. Walking into my local grocer’s, I first notice the tired, sniffling and sneezing victims waiting to be seen at the clinic. So far, I have been able to avoid these little bugs and that is my goal each year. For one thing, I hate being sick and secondly I would have to miss my training session! I chalk my success up to the fact that I get plenty of sleep, eat a healthy diet most of the time and as a nurse, I excel at hand washing. All of these habits help keep my immune system running well which is my defense.
Our immune system is our defense system when we are exposed to bacteria, viruses and other nasty things. It is housed in our bone marrow and thymus. Contact points of entry for invaders are our mouths, noses, eyes and lungs. When we are exposed to a virus, like the common cold, our immune system responds through our lymph nodes, spleen and mucus membranes to protect us.
Our innate immune system is our first line of defense. It is made of physical barriers (ex: mucus lining of our noses), chemical barriers (ex: the acid in our stomachs) and “killer” cells (ex: our white blood cells) housed by our body. A quick side note-women have better innate immune systems than men-um-sorry guys! Then we have an acquired immune system. This develops as we are exposed to different viruses and bacteria in our lifetime. It takes over when our first line (innate) system is overcome. It prevents bugs from setting up home or colonizing in the body and destroys foreign invaders. This explains why children are sick more than adults since they have not been exposed to as much.
So back to the question-Do you exercise or rest with a minor illness? Everyone knows not to come to the gym if battling the stomach flu or you are contagious but what about those minor illnesses like a cold, sinus infection or a sore throat? Some might look for any reason to skip exercise and lay on the couch with a blanket and the remote but is that necessary?
First let’s understand that there is a difference between training, I like that word better than working out, and simply moving the body. Every training session does not have to cause us to breath heavy, sweat, raise our heart rate or cause us to work hard. “Moving” the body can help us to feel better and get better faster, I believe. Getting out for a walk in the fresh air, riding a bike at a low intensity or merely stretching are all great ways exercise when feeling a bit under the weather. I would like to also say that good nutrition can help when combating inflammation caused by illness. Limit any processed foods that are inflammatory to the body. Eat whole foods, especially a diverse mix of fruits and vegetables that contain the vitamins that support our immune system. And finally, drink plenty of water to flush out toxins and help keep you hydrated.
It’s clear that training or exercising with a fever or feeling like you can’t lift your head off the pillow is not the right thing to do. If you are coughing and short of breath just walking to the kitchen then exercise is out of the question. It’s okay that day to lie on the couch and rest. Just don’t let an illness be the excuse for you to fall off the exercise wagon. You can merely lower the intensity exercise if you aren’t feeling it that day. If you are use to running three miles a day, start by just walking. If you enjoy lifting weights then start lighter or even with body weight exercises. By keeping your good habits in place, you stay consistent and moving forward to your goal. Be careful not to fall victim to the illness trap!