Exercise and Illness: A Guide to Keeping Fit While You're Recovering
Winter is a wonderful time of year for outdoor sports, enjoying nature, and planning for the new year ahead. Unfortunately, the winter also often brings germs and infections into our lives. Whether you’re a couch potato or a serious athlete even a short illness can seriously throw you off your game.
For fitness enthusiasts it can be common to wonder “when can I get back to the gym?”. Maybe you’re feeling better, but don’t want to risk spreading anything or setting your recovery back. Or, on the other hand, you might just be tired of resting and don’t want to lose all of your fitness gains. Figuring out when it’s safe and responsible to get back into working out -- both for yourself and those around you -- can be a complicated topic but here’s a summary of what the science says.
Cold or Flu
It goes without saying that in 2021 it’s not advisable to assume that any symptoms you have are just a generic cold or flu virus. It is extremely important that at the onset of any new symptoms you get tested for COVID-19. That being said, despite worldwide lockdowns there are still non-COVID viruses circulating through schools, daycares, workplaces and the like. It is entirely possible to just get a typical winter virus.
Realistically, you’re the person who knows your own body best. If you’ve got a home gym or prefer to exercise outdoors and are in no danger of spreading an illness you’re absolutely free to keep exercising the entire time. However, it’s important to know your body’s limits and to avoid particularly intense exercise if you have a fever.
The biggest danger to exercising while ill with a typical cold or flu virus is exhausting yourself to the point of making it harder for your body to heal. If you’re smart with your exercise and listen to your body you can still maintain some of your normal routine with relatively minimal impact.
COVID is the elephant in the room. Unlike a typical cold or flu virus, the novelty of the COVID virus means that it generally hits people in hard and unexpected ways. Scientists do not know about the majority of long-term COVID effects. What we do know, however, is troubling. Even for those who are entirely asymptomatic COVID infections can cause widespread damage throughout their bodies. One especially worrying type of damage is heart damage.
Your heart is obviously an extremely important organ, and few people know this more than fitness enthusiasts. None of us want to take risks that could negatively impact our heart muscle. Unfortunately there are signs that even asymptomatic or minimally symptomatic COVID infections can do just that. While there is nothing we know for sure, signs point to inflammation around the heart muscle in those infected with COVID-19. This combined with hard exercise can cause permanent damage. Intense exercise is not recommended for even the healthiest COVID-positive people. https://www.wired.com/story/if-youve-just-had-covid-exercise-might-not-be-good-for-you/
In addition to heart issues, COVID can really wreak havoc on the rest of your body. Fortunately, there's good evidence that having a great workout routine before getting COVID can really improve your outcomes. We always knew that exercise as healthy. Exercise helps prevent many different health complications, both from viruses and other conditions. Though research is still early, regular exercise prevents many health conditions that can exacerbate COVID symptoms. By keeping a healthy lifestyle you can prevent many serious diseases.
What should you do?
It's hard to give advice in these uncertain times. Nobody knows what's in store. As research moves forward for COVID-19 we learn more and more details about how to deal with the virus. In the meantime, however, it is important to stay cautious. When you feel sick it is extremely important not to push your body too far beyond its limits. Periodically check in with yourself during exercise. Make sure that you are feeling good.
Most importantly, remember that rest is an important part of recovery, whether you're talking about illness or training in general. Some of your most important gains are made through rest, not work.