I know this time of year we don’t get asked this question as often, but a client texted me yesterday and I wanted to share my feelings on exercising during and after illness.
When you’re sick or especially at the onset of symptoms, I would suggest avoiding intense physical activity of any kind. When your body is fighting off an illness, it needs energy to heal and recover, which can be compromised by engaging in vigorous exercise.
In this case, if you were to exercise with a fever or respiratory symptoms, you would be putting additional strain on your body and likely worsen your condition.
On the other hand, light to moderate exercise (like walking, stretching, or even light biking depending on your overall level of fitness), may be beneficial for those of you with something a little more mild. At the end of the day exercise DOES promote circulation and boost your immune system.
Her question was specifically geared towards getting back to doing cardio as you recover. “I took it slow and just lifted, but I ended up having trouble breathing and my heart was racing the entire workout.”
When you’re sick, especially if you have respiratory symptoms, we already said that your body is working harder than usual to fight off the illness. Exercise further increases the demand for oxygen in your body, requiring your lungs to work harder to deliver oxygen to your muscles and remove carbon dioxide. As a result, you may find yourself breathing heavier during exercise when you are sick.
Several factors contribute to this increased breathing:
- Inflammation: Illnesses such as colds or flu can cause inflammation in the respiratory system, leading to congestion, swelling, and narrowed airways. This restricts the flow of air and causes you to breathe harder.
- Mucus production: Your body may produce excess mucus when you’re sick, which can clog up your airways and make it more challenging for air to pass through. This can lead to increased breathing effort during exercise.
- Increased heart rate: During exercise, your heart rate goes up to meet the increased oxygen demands of your muscles. When you are sick, your heart rate may also be higher due to the added stress on your body, leading to heavier breathing.
It is important to note that while some level of increased breathing during exercise when you’re sick is normal, if you experience severe shortness of breath, chest pain, or dizziness, it is advised to stop exercising and seek medical attention.
And her last sentence was “I’m losing all of my endurance by missing sweats and it’s killing me!”
The first thing I’ll say is if you have a solid base and have done this consistently, you’re going to be okay! We all experience sickness, injury, vacation, or any of a hundred scenarios that causes us to miss workouts. If you’ve done all the proper prep work and created routine around a healthy lifestyle, it’s not going to be the end-all, be-all.
Taking a week off isn’t going to be enough to cause a ton of muscle loss but there are a couple things that you should remember when you’re starting to feel a little better and don’t want to move or consume any protein. Yes, your muscles will experience a slight decrease in size, strength, and endurance. “Use it or lose it”, right? HOWEVER, the extent of these changes depends on various factors, including your fitness level, the duration of the break, and how severe your illness is.
Some key points to consider:
- Protein synthesis: When you are sick and your body is actively fighting an illness, protein synthesis (the process that helps build and repair muscle) may be compromised. This can contribute to muscle breakdown so that your body can supply necessary energy and nutrients to the immune system. However, the impact of this on muscle mass is typically minimal during a short break!
- Muscle memory: If you have been consistently working out and have developed a solid foundation of muscle mass, you are more likely to retain your muscle gains during a brief break. Muscle memory, a phenomenon where muscles regain size and strength more easily after detraining, will help you bounce back faster.
- Nutrition: Consuming enough protein and maintaining a balanced diet during your illness can help minimize muscle loss. Adequate protein intake supports muscle repair and preservation. This is probably what I see most of you struggle with so do your best with bone broth, protein drinks, etc. to stay on top of it.
- Active recovery: Engaging in light physical activity or stretching (if tolerable and advised by your healthcare professional) can help maintain some muscle function and prevent excessive detraining* during your sick period.
Remember that everyone’s body and response to illness may differ. It is essential to listen to your body, prioritize rest and recovery, and resume exercising gradually once you are fully recovered to avoid potential injury or setbacks.
*detraining: the official term for the decline in training adaptations (strength, power, muscle growth, endurance, etc.)