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Is It Better to Exercise or Rest When You’re Sick?

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By Dr. MercolaWhen you’re feeling under the weather, is it better to curl up in bed for some rest or push yourself to exercise?

One of the benefits of being fit is that you can take time off and recover and use the reserves that you have built up to help you recover. It is kind of like having stored fat during times of famine.

Your built up fitness levels will provide you with the immune buffers and support to allow your body to effectively address the illness. If you don’t stop exercising you can easily exceed your body’s recovery capacity and actually get worse.

A simple guideline to follow is that if your body is under stress when you’re sick, seek rest as your body mobilizes to fight off the illness. Too much exercise, especially intense exercise, should therefore be avoided, as it will place an additional stressful burden on your already stressed system.

That said, moderate exercise, like walking, is generally fine, as long as you are careful and listen to your body to make sure you don’t overdo it.There are certain times when moderate exercise is actually preferable when you’re sick as well.

When is it OK to Exercise While Sick?

If your symptoms are above your neck, it’s usually ok to exercise, albeit at a lower intensity than you’re used to. This includes symptoms such as:

  • Runny nose
  • Nasal congestion
  • Sneezing
  • Sore throat
  • Headache

If you have enough energy to tolerate it, increasing your body temperature by sweating from exercise will actually help to kill many viruses. In fact, according to research, exercising with a cold may be well advised. At the end of one 10-day trial, those who exercised 40 minutes every-other day, at 70 percent of their maximum heart rate, felt better than those who remained sedentary—even though the clinical severity and duration of their symptoms were virtually identical.1

The key to exercising when you’re sick is to do so carefully. Over-exercising will place more stress on your body, which can suppress your immune system, so you should keep the intensity of your workouts on a moderate level if you're sick. So, you might just go for a brisk walk if you are coming down with a cold, or simply tone down your regular workout. As noted in Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews:2

"Prolonged intense exercise causes immunosuppression, whereas moderate-intensity exercise improves immune function and potentially reduces risk and severity of respiratory viral infections."

6 Surprising Times When a Workout Might do You Good

There are many surprising scenarios when, while you might be tempted to lounge on the couch, exercise is actually just what the doctor ordered. This includes:

  1. Recovering from Surgery

    Hitting the gym after you've had minor surgery can be highly beneficial, helping to both decrease side effects and get you back into the swing of your daily life faster. You will, of course, need to be mindful of the level of intensity and avoid exercises that may stress a surgical incision or repair, but generally speaking the sooner you can get moving after surgery, the better.

  2. Cancer Patients

    Exercising during and after cancer treatment can help reduce your risk of dying from cancer; reduce your risk of cancer recurrence; boost energy; and minimize the side effects of conventional cancer treatment. A report by Macmillan Cancer Support notes that cancer patients and cancer survivors should exercise at least 2.5 hours a week,3 and cites an excerpt from the American College of Sports Medicine consensus statement on exercise guidelines for cancer survivors, which states:

    "Exercise is safe both during and after most types of cancer treatment... Patients are advised to avoid inactivity and return to normal daily activities as soon as possible after surgery, and during adjuvant cancer treatments."

  3. Osteoarthritis or Joint Pain

    If you have joint pain, exercise is a must; it helps prevent and relieve joint pain through a number of mechanisms, including strengthening key supportive muscles, restoring flexibility, improving bone density and joint function, and facilitating weight loss.

    The notion that exercise is detrimental to your joints is a misconception, as there is no evidence to support this belief. Quite the contrary, actually, as inactivity promotes muscle weakness, joint contractures, and loss of range of motion, which can lead to more pain and loss of function, and even less activity. To break this potentially devastating cycle, regular exercise is essential.

    If you have osteoarthritis or joint pain and you find that you're in pain for longer than one hour after your exercise session, you should slow down or choose another form of exercise. Assistive devices are also helpful to decrease the pressure on affected joints during your workout. You may also want to work with a physical therapist or qualified personal trainer who can develop a safe range of activities for you. If the exercise causes pain that persists longer than several hours it most likely was too much.

  4. Chronic Pain

    Exercise can help with long-term pain relief for a variety of conditions, including osteoarthritis, back and musculoskeletal pain. Furthermore, because exercise often leads to improved posture, range of motion and functionality of your body, it can help treat the underlying source of your pain as well as help prevent chronic back pain. Exercises that can be particularly helpful for chronic pain include stretching, resistance training, and swimming.

  5. Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)

    If you have the lung disease COPD, exercise can help to improve your circulation, helping your body to use oxygen more efficiently. It may also help to strengthen your heart, improve your symptoms, and boost your energy levels so you can perform more daily activities without fatigue or becoming out of breath.

  6. Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)

    Dietary strategies are key for healing irritable bowel syndrome at the foundational level, however exercise can help improve IBS symptoms, as well. In one study, exercise led to improvements in problems like cramps, bloating, constipation and diarrhea, with, 43 percent of exercisers showing a significant improvement in their symptoms.4

When Should You NOT Exercise While Sick?

It’s generally advised that you avoid exercise if you have symptoms that are "below your neck," such as:

  • Fever
  • Coughing or chest congestion
  • Fatigue
  • Widespread body and muscle aches
  • Vomiting, upset stomach and/or stomach cramps

But no matter what your symptoms, you need to be very careful and listen to your body. If you don’t feel up to it, and all you want to do is get some rest, then that’s what your body needs.

And I can’t stress enough that if you don’t feel well, you should not do your full, normal exercise routine, as that could clearly stress your immune system even more and prolong your illness if you are not careful and wind up overdoing it.

High-intensity exercise like Peak Fitness should be avoided when you’re sick, because any kind of intensive exercise boosts production of cortisol, a stress hormone which inhibits the activity of natural killer cells—a type of white blood cell that attacks and rids your body of viral agents. This is why running a marathon can actually increase your chances of getting sick shortly thereafter. In fact, elite endurance athletes can suffer anywhere from two to six times as many upper respiratory infections during a year, compared to average, active individuals.5

If You’re Trading Your Workout for a Good Rest, Make Sure You’re Doing This …

Feeling fatigued when you’re sick is your body’s way of telling you to slow down so you get some much-needed rest while your body heals. A good way to help the recovery process is to ground while you are sleeping.

Grounding, or Earthing, is defined as placing one's bare skin on the ground whether it be dirt, grass, sand or concrete (especially when humid or wet). When you ground to the electron-enriched earth, an improved balance of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system occurs.

The Earth is a natural source of electrons and subtle electrical fields, which are essential for proper functioning of immune systems, circulation, synchronization of biorhythms and other physiological processes and may actually be the most effective, essential, least expensive, and easiest to attain antioxidant. Your immune system functions optimally when your body has an adequate supply of electrons, which are easily and naturally obtained by barefoot contact with the Earth.

When grounding is restored, many people report significant improvement in a wide range of ailments, including chronic fatigue. These changes are rapid and often occur within 30 minutes.

Obviously, most of us are not going to be comfortable sleeping outside on the ground, so the alternative is to use a grounding or Earthing pad, which allows you to get the benefits of the Earth's electrons even if you're indoors, especially when you're sleeping. If you’re not feeling well, grounding while you sleep is highly recommended to help support your recovery.





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