• drsuzbaxter

Should you exercise when sick? When can you go back to exercise after being sick?

Updated: Aug 18

When is it safe to exercise after the flu or COVID?


So, you may or may not have been exercising prior to getting sick. It seems like everybody's coming down with the cold, the flu, potentially COVID or some derivative of all of the above these days, and it's hitting us hard especially if you were in any of the lockdown places, or if you've suddenly gone overseas or been in contact with someone who's been overseas. All of a sudden, all of these illnesses have kind of manifested to one that really knocks us off our feet. And we're getting sick in a way that we've never gotten sick before. We're feeling absolutely out of it. We've got brain fog. We've got aching muscles, shivering. Loss of smell. We're just really tired, and potentially you've done a COVID test. It may or may not be positive, but the bottom line is, you want to know when you can get back into exercise. Maybe because you've just started exercising again from being overseas or potentially you've been exercising for a long time and this has just really knocked you off your feet.


Well, this is a question I get asked all the time. And I thought that I would put it out there on my blog to see if I can help a few more people with the answer. Okay, so there are a few considerations to take in.


1. Are you actually still sick? Like if you have all of the symptoms of being still sick and you just really want to get into the gym? I'm sorry, that's a little bit inconsiderate to go into the gym, and your body's actually still fighting through whatever it is that's going on, be it the flu or some sort of manifest of flu cold virus thing. So if you're still sick, do not head to the gym.

If your symptoms are very mild, and they're ones that you know you've cleared up the majority of being sick, your energy levels have spiked up a little bit and it's been two weeks and you're just ready to get out of the house. If your symptoms are above the neck, so you don't have a chesty cough, like a cough with a whole lot of girth to it. And you're just a little bit sniffly. This is one that you can proceed with caution you will get quite lightheaded as you're working out and you may want to have a mask on or stay away from others if you fall into this category, but if:

  • your illness is below the chest

  • if you've got quite a chesty cough

  • if you've got a sore throat

  • if your ears are blocked, these sorts of things.

It's best not to exercise because there are some times that by providing exertion you can actually put a lot of pressure on your immune system but on your body and on your heart especially especially if it's a virus.


So when people do this through things, in some cases, they can actually cause themselves to have really quite bad heart problems when they return to exercise too quickly. And these can be ones that are longer to recover from than just the cold or the flu. So taking an extra couple of days can sometimes be really quite beneficial. On top of that, remember, you've got to be able to leave enough energy in the tank to be able to recover from whatever it is that's making its way through your immune system. So finding a virus takes energy and exercising takes energy as well. If your body is diverting all the energy to getting you through a hit class, it's not going to have as much energy to help you get back on your feet after whatever it is. So you may relapse and get worse or you may pick up whatever other virus or illness is going around the gym.


Please note if your illness has been going on for longer than two weeks and doesn't seem to be clearing up you may want to consult with your GP just to make sure that it hasn't progressed further. I have had a number of friends that thought that they had the cold and they just weren't getting better. And it turned out that it had progressed to a chest infection and then one of them had pneumonia, which when I was 17 I actually didn't even know pneumonia was a thing (I thought it had been eradicated with smallpox in the the old ages or was a very severe complication of a surgery). That shows my naivety so just do get things checked out. Sometimes your doctor may find that you have some sort of infection that does require antibiotics or something like that. So bear that in mind.


  • Another thing to think about is if your nose is blocked or you know if you are feeling a little bit lethargic. You may want to be just doing a workout that is kind of like an activation workout. Start by going on a walk and you want to listen to your body. So if you do a 30 minute workout, and it's a light workout, and you have to sleep about 20 minutes after you've done the workout and you don't even feel right the next day you started exercise too soon. It's time to tune back into our body and find out what our body needs most.


There's lots of ways you can keep on top of your health even when you have come down with the cold or the flu or COVID and those things don't have to be exercised specifically until you're ready. So these are things you should prioritize like,


  • Sleep. Sleep is a big one. It's when our body prioritizes repair. And if your body is fighting something, it's pretty much in battle like for the entire day that you're awake. It's no wonder that it's tiring to prioritize having a decent amount of sleep. Remember, if you do have COVID, even if you do think you're getting eight hours sleep your sleep will be quite interrupted especially if you can't breathe very well during the night. So it may be that because the sleep quality isn't good enough that you may need more like nine or 10 hours on top of that.


  • Nutrition. Are you eating enough colored fruit and vegetables? Eat the rainbow.

  • Do you have enough Protein? Protein prioritizes repair.

  • Are you having enough good fats as well? Now is not the time to be in a calorie deficit because you will actually be removing the energy that your body needs to be able to recover from whatever it is it's fighting. So don't put yourself on a calorie diet. Just because you're unable to get out and about and start moving.


  • Light exercise. Another thing to bear in mind when you are re commencing exercise is yes doing some light exercise to begin with. But remember that you're more at risk of injury given that you're proprioception muscle activation deconditioning that's happening within the time that you maybe were on the couch for like two five days. Just lying down is possibly what will put you most at risk when returning to exercise. Laying down for a few days can really deactivate your deep core muscles. And on top of that breathing being interrupted by having a blocked nose sinuses, that sort of thing can really make your brain oxygen field just a little bit higher when you're getting back into exercise. And this can make us feel really disoriented especially if we're doing a sport or exercise that requires us to be really switched on and on the ball.


  • Fatigue. Another consideration, which erroneously might start to be known if it’s COVID, but if it is not COVID just yet is, there is typically a fatigue that occurs and continues during the time after recovery from infection, and this fatigue is different than just being tired. Yes, your sleep has been interrupted but it's a fatigue where sleep doesn't touch the sides of how exhausted you feel. In these instances, a small amount of light exercise counter intuitively is good and can really help us set our sleep routine and feel better and be a bit of a mood booster. But not overdoing exercise. That's really important.


I hope you're not reading this and thinking that I'm telling you to have a free Hall Pass not to exercise but I do want you to be cautious because there can be some ill effects of returning to exercise too soon.


Some of the issues include: that you remember exactly how you used to be able to exercise and what you used to be able to do in the exercise and that puts us more at injury risk, but also on top of that it means that we may overdo it when it comes to exercise, which is not our intention.

We forget what we should be limiting ourselves with. And it's a very different sort of approach when we have to tune into our body in a different way to work out whether we're capable of continuing an exercise regime in the way that we've been doing before. Most of us will train ourselves to not listen to any naysaying parts of the body that are saying, “let's not exercise, let's lay on the couch”. It can be very difficult to say “am I being overly cautious or am I being just right” or “am I throwing caution to the wind and ignoring every single part of my body that's telling me that this is a really silly idea”. The only person that's going to know the answer is you.


However, one of the good rules of thumb to use is wait for about two weeks after your symptoms have elapsed before you start re engaging in exercise again, when it comes to COVID. If it’s flu and not covid, again, wait until your symptoms have completely subsided and do a little bit of a 20 to 30 minutes test exercise. Then from there, see how you feel the next day, see if you're overly tired and then judge whether you should continue doing your light exercise for a week and maybe only doing two or three sessions in that week, or whether you can up the ante a little bit and do more like three or four. But don't jump right back into what you used to do before because you're more likely to put yourself at risk of fainting, trembling and maybe even relapsing into getting sick again and nobody wants that. Because exercise is about being healthy and taking care of your body and if your body is telling you that it's sick... Your first priority is to do no harm and doing no harm usually means to rest up until you're at a substantial level that you can handle the exercise. Remember exercise is a stressor on the body. It's a good stressor but if it's already handling stress on the body, the amount of activity that you can recover from is severely diminished.


If you need any help with judging when to go back into exercise, again what to do (and potentially you or a loved one has heard from a doctor that it is something a little bit more complicated than a common cold and you need a little bit more help) reach out to us. We are more than happy to help point you in the right direction, especially if you've been told to "exercise, but not overdo it", which is one of the main things we heard when the founder, Susan was studying her PhD and heard GPs tell musculoskeletal patients to "exercise but not overdo it” and it's an entirely complicated process. Sometimes it's hard to know what that means without guidance. And how do you start to unpick what that exactly means for your own body?

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