There I was- my body worn out and sweaty, my throat raw, my stomach queasy. There was not much more I could give. I felt spent. The problem was that I hadn’t touched a weight or made the faintest attempt at upping my heart rate. No, it was just a summer bug come early. I had a healthy dose of nasal/sinus congestion, sore throat, fatigue, and a heavy chest. The onset was gradual over a day or two. I don’t know about you, but that’s usually when my struggle kicks in. “Should I work out feeling this way?”
There are obviously times when a sickness will be severe enough that it’s a no-brainer, but it can be a complicated question to answer otherwise even with simple rules of thumb in place. The simple rules are that you should feel free to proceed with the workout (possibly at reduced intensity) if your symptoms are above the neck, and you should postpone the workout if the symptoms are below. “Above the neck” would mean running nose, nasal congestion, sneezing, or sore throat. Below would be symptoms like chest congestion, hacking cough, or upset stomach. If your exercising is making symptoms worse, then stop and rest. That’s pretty straightforward, so what is the mystery?
What complicates this relatively straightforward scenario is you. You are the question mark; I am the question mark, as well. We’ve each got our own personalities, immune systems, pain thresholds, and goals, and feeling “good enough” is very subjective. I’m a 37-year-old father of four very rough-and-tumble children, and I’ve got all the nicks, scars, scrapes, and hobbles to prove it. If I wait to feel perfect before I do something, I will never do anything. Beyond that, I’m just wired to push the envelope and test the limits. I never want to stop. I never want to quit, ever- as in never. Some people want to forego a workout because their eyes are watery. While I’m getting depressed about missing workouts, some are taking the mental note that being “sick” is a free ticket to downtime. While I’ve convinced myself wrongly that I can will myself through workouts without relinquishing anything (and made myself worse), others have extended their recovery time to make absolutely sure they’re all better.
Here’s the rub. Even if we could set the mental and personality differences aside, our bodies are unique, too. We are not built the same. The workout that stresses my body too much and makes my symptoms worse might not stress you much at all. The degree to which you have to scale down your physical activity might be vastly different from the next person. Some people rightfully put the workouts on hold at a point when other people are right to continue on.
At the end of the day, you have to know what’s right for you (or your clients if you train others). You have to learn what level of physical activity you can maintain, and you have to learn how much rest you need in order to get better. It is always good to keep the general rules of thumb in mind and back off workouts as needed if you feel symptoms getting worse. The other important rule of thumb is that you should resume your workout routine gradually as you begin to feel better. Above all else, you have to know yourself and your body and then pay attention.
Do everyone a favor, though. If you work out at a gym and attempt to push through sickness, at least wash your hands… a lot. People may want your fitness level or looks, but they don’t want your cold.
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