Illness and Exercise… some advice for this year’s flu season.

It’s that time of year again.  Flu season is upon us!  And, fun fact, this year’s flu is the worst one we’ve seen in about a decade if you go by the amount of flu related Emergency Department visits hospitals have seen so far this season.  Another fun fact, this year’s flu vaccine is only about 50% effective.  Yes, you should still get it, but it’s not a 100% guarantee that you won’t get sick anyway.

This year, I got sick anyway.  It’s been about 2 weeks since I first came down with my symptoms, and it’s seriously sidelining me from my exercise routine.  I’ve missed work, cancelled trainer appointments, and cleared my social calendar so I can stay in and rest up.  And after 2 weeks, I’m still sick!

Part of my problem is that I keep trying to go back to work too early.  I get exposed to all kinds of illnesses at work, and I think I may have come down with a 2nd virus on top of my original flu infection.  Because of that, I’m taking this whole weekend off to get better before showing my face in the hospital again.  It’s pretty telling that a huge percentage of our nurses have come down with the flu this year.  My colleagues and I have started referring to it as the Plague.

So if I’m sick enough to miss work and to avoid going out, am I sick enough to stay home from the gym?  I’ve done some research, and in my case, the answer is yes, I’m sick enough that I should be staying home and avoiding exercise until my symptoms go away.  Here’s why:

In all the research that I’ve done about exercise and illness, the general rule is that if you have “neck-up” symptoms, you’re still ok to exercise, but if you have “neck-down” symptoms, you should be avoiding exercise and getting rest.  the “neck rule” is pretty simple; if you’ve got a cough or a runny nose, those symptoms occur above neck level, so they count as “neck-up” symptoms.  These are usually associated with a cold virus of some kind, and while you may want to decrease your effort at the gym to, say, 75-80% of your usual effort, it’s still safe for you to work out.  In fact, there is some evidence showing that exercise has immunity-boosting effects.  A light cold may be a reason to scale back your efforts slightly, but not to avoid working out all together.

The flu, however, is not the same thing as a cold.  It’s the “neck-down” symptoms that are more concerning.  Fever, body aches, or a cough that’s settled into your chest, are more indicative of flu, bronchitis, or pneumonia.  Exercising in one of these conditions is more dangerous, and probably counter-productive.  Because you raise your core body temperature during exercise, exercising when you already have a fever is a big no-no.  It can cause your body to heat up to dangerous levels.  You don’t want to do that!  Stay home, take it easy, and wait for the “neck-down” symptoms to subside.

So where does this leave me?  Well for now, it leaves me at home, on the couch, with a long day of Netflix ahead.  My goal for the weekend is to rest (maybe the toughest goal I’ve had in a while…  resting is driving me nuts!) until my fever and body aches subside.  Then, I’ll hit the gym at about 75% of my usual effort, and see how it feels.  After two weeks of pretty severe flu symptoms, I really am losing my patience, but I know that I won’t be doing myself any favors if I overdo it too soon.

Here’s hoping that the rest of you have managed to avoid this year’s Plague!


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