Having grown up being actively involved in team sports and exercise, there have been multiple occasions over the last 20+ years where sickness has impaired my ability to take part. I have memories stretching back into my junior years, having heard the coach of our under 12’s football team either instruct myself, or other team mates that missing training for sickness reasons was unacceptable and that the best thing to do was ‘sweat it out’. Lets keep in mind that this coach rivalled any half time spray delivered at a professional level, yet we were only 11 year old boys. 

No one enjoys being sick. I hate being sick. So there’s probably no guessing where the motivation for this piece has come from. Spending your life working in a gym, hundreds of people come in and out daily spreading their DNA, just like any work place. The only difference is, in this workplace, people are sweating, hyperventilating, and touching all the shared facilities. So whats going on here? Was my under 12’s football coach onto something? Or should we have more consideration for ourselves and the health of others in times of sickness? 

While investigating the subject, I came across some interesting research that suggested a number of things. It is well documented that participating in regular exercise activity has a positive impact on physical health and mental wellbeing. Furthermore, with greater importance to employers, physical activity not only improves cognitive function and work related performance, but has been shown to influence work related outcomes such as reducing sickness absence. However, the particular study I’m referring to had a number of methodological concerns given it lacked detail surrounding the type of exercise involved with its observations. 

Digging further, there is evidence to suggest prolonged, intense exercise causes immunosuppression, while moderate intensity exercise improves immune function and potentially reduces risk and severity of respiratory viral infection (Stephen A. Martin 2010). This correlates with more findings indicating a connection found between long distance runners and cyclists having greater complaints of gastrointestinal symptoms and discomfort. The incidence of such problems visibly differs in various data sources and depends on age, sex, training history and physical performance however in a group describes as marathon runners, up to 83% of them complain of GI distress. These issues could include any of the following upper gastrointestinal tract disabilities including nausea, vomiting, gastro-oesophageal reflux and heartburn. Lower gastrointestinal tract symptoms often reported diarrhoea, intestinal cramping, gastrointestinal bleeding and flatulence (Pawel Samborski 2013).

Then so far it could be assumed that regular exercise is good for wellbeing, immune function, and cognitive performance (surprise, surprise), but excessive prolonged cardio may be detrimental to the integrity of your gut and consequently negatively impacts the same factors. 

All interesting information, but today your sick and weighing up whether to train or rest. What do you do?

If a person has symptoms of a common cold with no constitutional upset, it is recommended safely resuming training a few days after the resolution of symptoms. However, if the athlete experiences symptoms or signs of extreme tiredness, myalgia, or swollen lymph glands, then he/she should not resume full training for at least a month (Roberts JA. 1986). For more competitive people or competitive athletes who cannot afford to miss any training days, even when ill, it is recommended to perform a “neck check.” If symptoms are located “above the neck,” such as a stuffy or runny nose, sneezing, or scratchy throat with no constitutional symptoms, then the athlete should be allowed to proceed cautiously through his/her scheduled workout at half the speed. After a few minutes, if the congestion clears and the athlete feels better, then intensity can be gradually increased. The athlete with “below the neck” symptoms, such as a fever, aching muscles, hacking or productive cough, vomiting, or diarrhoea, should not train or exercise (Eichner ER. 1992). Exercise during the incubation period of an infection may worsen the illness (Fitzgerald L. 1991). 

From this, I’ll safely conclude that “sweating it out” is quite possibly one of the worst pieces of advise when it comes to exercise and sickness particularly when symptoms present themselves below the neck. The fact is, your body is under stress and needs rest to recover.

Furthermore, I recommend some simple self management practices, to be implemented in ones daily routine, to minimise risk of falling victim to illness, wasting your time in the gym with ineffective workouts, and having poor performance on the training track and in the sporting arena.

For about $100, you can purchase a reliable blood pressure & heart rate monitor from your local pharmacy. Using the device, start recording both results additionally with your total hours of sleep. Within a week or two you should have enough data to understand your ‘normal’ reading for both waking Blood Pressure and Heart Rate. Secondly you should find some correlations between insufficient sleep time and elevated readings. Going forward, you can use more objective information to schedule your rest days from exercise. If you’ve had less than 7 hours sleep and both waking Blood Pressure and Heart Rate are elevated by 10% or more, then this may be indicative of sympathetic dominance and highlights the need for a recovery/rest day. These days may benefit more from incorporating barefoot earthing, deep breathing exercises, yin yoga, and meditation rather than strenuous activity. Failing to listen to your body in such circumstances will increase the likelihood of sickness and training itself will provide a detrimental adaptation response to your goals. 


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