Back in the days of old, before every high street store sold over the counter medicine, if you got ill your parents would tell you to go outside, play and sweat it out because the fresh air and exercise would do you good. Were these parents of yesteryear on to something or was it just an old wives tale. Does exercising help of hinder you when you have a cold or bug?
Lets find out by going in to what our immune system and how it works first.
*If you just want a short answer to this question you can skip to the bottom of the page to find the short answer guide.
We all know that the human body has its very own immune system to help prevent such problems like:
•throat infections, and
•middle ear infections.
In fact without our immune system we would find ourselves in a rather large spot of bother.
Our innate (natural) immune system is our non-specific first line of defence.
•physical/structural barriers (like the mucous lining in nasal passages),
•chemical barriers (like our stomach acids), and
•protective cells (like our natural killer ‘NK’ cells, white blood cells that can destroy harmful invaders).
However this stops developing while you’re young, which is why playing in the mud and getting dirty as a child is essential for future health. Without those early exposures such small illnesses could be catastrophic.
Then there’s the adaptive (acquired) immune system. This is a more sophisticated system composed of highly specialised cells & processes. It kicks in when the innate immune system is overcome by something more troublesome than just a common cold.
The adaptive immune system helps us fight infections by preventing pathogens from colonising and also by destroying microorganisms like viruses and bacteria before they get a chance to become to comfortable in their new home. This is the role of T & B cells (Think of them like bouncers at the club), these specialised white blood cells mature in the thymus and bone marrow, respectively. They actually have a kind of memory too which is helpful for future invasions from similar nasties.
It’s this memory that makes them so effective. Once they “recognise” a specific pathogen, they mobilise more quickly and effectively to fight it. This is what we mean when we talk about “building immunity.”.
Ever wondered why kids get sick with viruses more often than adults?
It’s because they haven’t had as much exposure so their adaptive immune systems are less mature, again this is why you want your children to go play in the mud when they are young because keeping them in a completely sanitised area will only serve to make their immune system less effective.
Chicken Pox party anyone?
What’s more, the acquired immune response is the basis for vaccination, you know, when you go to the docs before an holiday. The docs subject your body to a tiny dose of a pathogen, and it will know what to do when confronted with a bigger dose, it’s pretty clever how the body works isn’t it.
Now back to the bigger question, should you train/exercise when ill?
There is a difference between exercising and Training.
Exercise can be classed as something light such as a 30min walk, Tai Chi, basically anything that is a moderate to low intensity with very little impact or stress caused to the body.
Training can be classed as prolonged vigorous activity like weight lifting or fast paced running, both of which cause a larger stress to be imposed.
Now if you’re ill then your body is already under a certain amount of stress, therefore adding an excessive amount of vigorous activity to it could dampen your immune system/recovery ability against said illness. So considering that being ill causes stress and so does training it would make sense to stay away from it right?
For major illness and issues then yes is the answer, but for minor colds there is no significant reason to forgo the gym as training.
Regardless of the strength of the bug you have it’s advised that you do some low level activity or ‘exercise’ as this will help increase blood flow meaning you’re body will transport nutrients, proteins and other essential goodies to where they are needed and promote a faster overall recovery.
It’s worth also keeping in mind that Age, Living Conditions, Sleep, Working Hours, Travel Hours and Weight also have a big part to play in how hard you’re hit but a cold or something of that ilk. You will find that people who are largely sedentary, smoke and eat extremely poor food choices are more likely to get ill, this is due the the large amount of stress already imposed on the body from their general life.
Unfortunately there is no definitive answer to the question because people al respond so differently, but in my opinion unless you’re suffering from a life threatening illness or severe auto-immune disease then Training isn’t and issue. You have to learn to listen to your body, it will tell you when it’s had enough or when it can’t do anymore. For example if you’re feeling drained then a walk or nice bike will be sufficient to help get your juices flowing, aiding your recovery.
*Short Answer Guide:
Colds & Minor Illness = Fine to Train/Exercise at varied intensities.
Moderate Fever & Lack of Energy = Light to Moderate Training/Exercise, listen to your body.
Sever Illness & Auto Immune Issues = Put down the dumbbell and seek medical advice ASAP!