It goes without saying that if you have physically injured yourself, you should consult a medical professional if you’re planning to hit the weights bench – but for something like a cough or a cold, what’s the harm, right? With Coronavirus a constant presence in the news agenda right now, it’s thrown everyone’s focus onto limiting their exposure to germs and airborne diseases – as the empty shelves of alcohol gel in Boots testify. And while you should absolutely stay home if you have come into contact with anyone with Coronavirus no matter how much you might want to get your pump on, when it comes to a less serious illness such as a cough or cold, is there any benefit to trying to sweat it out with a little exercise? We speak to our resident expert Dr Adam Collins PhD to find out.
Should you work out if you have an illness?
Generally, my advice is no. It’s most likely that you won’t be able to tolerate the exercise as much (i.e. have reduced exercise capacity) and the exercise may exacerbate your symptoms. There is a myth that you can “sweat out” an illness through exercise, but I don’t see any logic in this, nor any evidence in the literature. The logic for this myth suggests that as exercise increases core temperature, this will help fight off the infection, but this is a contradiction. If you have an illness, your non-specific immune response is to increase body temperature anyway, possibly to a level high enough to have a fever. Exercise when ill will either not increase temperature as much as it would under normal circumstances – possibly due to a higher baseline temperature – or it will increase the risk of overheating quicker leading to fatigue and impaired performance. And that’s just with minor illnesses such as a cough or cold. If you have a severe illness then you may risk more serious damage to your body and/or collapse.
Are there any other possible detrimental effects from exercising when ill?
Given the increased energy expenditure (i.e. calorie demand) during an illness, the additional energy cost of exercise will be a further burden to your body. Hence if you are looking to get exercise “gains” (such as those from resistance exercise) then the circumstances are totally wrong. You are mainly in a catabolic state already when ill and so you will likely have exercise “losses” rather than gains.
Other than physical incapacity, what are the symptoms that indicate you are too ill to work out?
Fever, high temperature, respiratory restrictions (i.e. breathing problems), fatigue.
If you’re coming out from the other side of an illness, is it better to exercise outdoors rather than indoors?
Any place for exercise that necessarily involves a lot of people using an enclosed space, such as gyms and pools, are not good places if either a) you want to avoid spreading your infection or illness to others and/or b) you want to avoid getting ill from others in the first place. Some people anecdotally say that some low intensity endurance type exercise outdoors may be of benefit to help clear mucus (i.e. phelgm) from the respiratory system, but this may be at the latter stages of an illness and needs to be rationalised – for an athlete returning from illness, for example, this may be a good way of reintroducing exercise. It may also be beneficial just to get some fresh air as you crest your illness, especially if you’ve been cooped up indoors with circulating germs.
What’s the role of sleep and recovery when you’re ill? Does this change?
Sleep may be improved because you are physically knackered, but recovery may not be any quicker. Recovery from the exercise may also be less effective (see answer to first question).
So… should I go to the gym during a potential Coronavirus outbreak?
The gym would be the absolute last place I would go in an outbreak as there’s lots of shared hard surfaces, coughing and heavy breathing. Plus, sweat is a great medium for transmission. AVOID