What Should/Shouldn’t I Be Doing When I’m Sick??

By: Angela Johnston

This year’s flu/cold season seems like it’s lasting an ENTIRE year! I’ve been sick multiple times in 2019, our clients and members have been out for weeks at a time and even those with flu shots earlier in the year are getting symptoms…

But not to fear, there are many things you can do in regards to exercise and nutrition to help you bounce back faster than ever before. I have a plan of action for those of you suffering from minor ailments to help keep you consistent even when you’re not feeling 100%. Follow these guidelines and most importantly listen to your body…

Should I (not) exercise and how should/shouldn’t I?

Daily light to moderate exercise has been shown to promote immunity and speed up recovery. It can also help you fight future bugs too. Increasing circulation and breath rate can aide in stimulating both the adaptive and innate immune systems.

While the adaptive immune system (think white blood cells and your response to vaccinations) is stimulated by chronic bouts of moderate cardio-respiratory training activities, the innate immune system (think protective cells, chemical barriers like stomach acids and physical barriers like mucosal lining of the nasal passages) is stimulated by chronic light resistance training. Working both together regularly and consistently not only helps before you’re sick but during and after too.

Wong CM, et al. states, “When compared with never or seldom exercise, exercising at low to moderate frequency is beneficial with lower influenza-associated mortality.” Moderate intensity exercise performed for 45 minutes to 1 hour 5-7 days a week has been shown to increase immunity in general. Living a sedentary lifestyle or doing prolonged (1.5 hours or more) vigorous exercise could actually hinder the healing process by negatively affecting the adaptive immune system. So, throughout the year and especially when sick, practice moderation in your training. Think longevity as the goal!

Many factors can affect your body’s natural ability to heal. Some factors include:

  • Age
  • Stress Levels
  • Gender
  • Sleep Habits (or lack there of)
  • Climate
  • Mood
  • Training Age (how long you’ve consistently exercised)

Dr. John Berardi of Precision Nutrition says, “Unless you’re feeling like a train wreck, I always recommend low intensity, low heart rate “cardio” during the first few days of sickness. Generally I prefer 20-30 minute walks done either outside (in the sunshine) or on a home treadmill (if you can’t get outside). If you keep the intensity low and the heart rate down you’ll end up feeling better during the activity. And you’ll likely stimulate your immune system and speed up your recovery too. But even if you don’t speed up your recovery, you’ll feel better for having moved.”

Along those lines, our trainers here at Athlon would recommend staying OUT OF THE GYM (to prevent spread of germs and illness) for the first few days after the onset of symptoms. However, once you’re past the immediate response (aches, fevers, diarrhea, vomiting, etc.) start moving slowly and with intention (walking, stretching, etc.). Usually after 4-7 days you’re ready to come back to the gym with realistic expectations (you may not be PR-ing your deadlifts that week, but that’s ok)! With the severity of bugs we’ve been seeing, it may take up to a month to get back to full potential. As our accounts manager, Kathy always says, “Be kind to yourself!”

What can I eat to fight bugs faster/prevent illness?

Similarly with exercise, daily nutrition plays a huge part in your immunity, tendency to catch flus/colds and how quickly you can recover from them. Your digestive system (think saliva, acid in your stomach, proteins and chemicals in your intestines and beneficial gut bacteria throughout) contains over 70% of your immunity function. This means healing and maintaining a healthy gut is a great place to start (whether you’re sick or not)!

Calder PC, in “Feeding the Immune System” states when you’re sick, you tend to eat less (decreased nutrient availability for the immune system to use). You also tend to absorb fewer nutrients in general due to the compromised state of your system. However, during that time there is a greater need for nutrients, so it’s a little bit of a catch-22.

Furthermore, Fischetti M, in “Fact or Fiction?: Feed a cold, starve a fever.” mentioned the validity of the “old wives tale”, “feed a cold and starve a fever” has never been confirmed (or denied), which is why we usually recommend just listening to your body and eating if you’re hungry, don’t if you’re not.  

With that in mind, there are certain foods that are proven to aid/speed up recovery:

  • Dark Raw Honey – antibacterial and antimicrobial properties as well as a great natural cough suppressant
  • Garlic – acts as an antibiotic and has been shown to lessen the severity of colds and other infections
  • Homemade Chicken Soup/Bone Broth – provides fluids, electrolytes and has anti-inflammatory properties to decrease symptoms
  • Green Tea – boosts antibodies and helps rid our body of pathogens
  • Elderberries – anti-viral properties and are very rich in phytonutrients
  • Coconut Water – increases hydration and electrolyte balance without causing gastrointestinal distress and is rich in antioxidants
  • Ginger – relieves nausea and is a antimicrobial antioxidant
  • Foods Rich In Prebiotics – vegetables, fruits, grains, seeds or even supplementing
  • Foods Rich in Probiotics – yogurts and kefir with live, active cultures, naturally fermented foods like pickles, sauerkraut and kimchi, or supplementing if needed

Final thoughts about fitness and nutrition when sick…

As Huang, CJ states in “Influence of Physical Activity and Nutrition on Obesity Related Immune Function”, “Research examining immune function during obesity suggests that excessive adiposity is linked to impaired immune responses leading to pathology…stress, physical activity, and nutrition have each shown to be a significant lifestyle factor influencing the inflammatory profile associated with the state of obesity.” Therefore an active individual that eats lots of whole foods, sleeps well and stays hydrated often is likely not to get sick as much or as severely compared to those with a sedentary lifestyle on the standard American diet (think highly caloric with large amounts of processed carbohydrates and fats).

Prevent flus/colds by getting ahead of it. Eat well, exercise, sleep well and drink water often so even if you do catch a bug, you’ll be quick to recovery and get back to your normal workout routine in no time.

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