Facebook   Twitter   Instagram
Current Issue   Archive   Donate and Support   

If Sick, Exercise (Sometimes)


I used to think my girlfriend was trying to kill me. She had reasons. I was a bad house cleaner, I ate popcorn in bed, and I skipped her birthday to attend a Jell-O wrestling contest. When cold and flu season came around, and I got sick, I believe she sensed her opportunity. Her remedy for any illness was two whole heads of garlic. I’m not sure why. Perhaps she figured that if garlic could kill vampires, it could kill colds.I

Mostly what it did was make me into a disgusting person. Garlic smell seeped out of my pores, my breath was smellable from two states away, and my innards … how shall can I put this? … if America had a cap-and-trade system for greenhouse gas emissions, I would have been a major player.

At the same time, she wanted me to exercise while sick. But exercising while sick is about as pleasant as meeting your new in-laws while high. You stagger to the gym, head low, and groan through a few reps before falling asleep on the bench. Or you go for a jog and leave behind a snot trail, like a 1985 Ford Impala leaking oil. I did these things. I almost dropped dead – but not quite. I think my girlfriend was disappointed.

I thought she was trying to off me because other friends – those who could stand the garlic smell – said that you shouldn’t exercise when you’re sick. Rest, they said. Don’t push it.

So which is it? Should you exercise while sick? Or should you take it easy? Everyone seems to have different advice on this question.

One thing seems clear and agreed-upon: exercising in your daily life can help prevent you from getting sick, because exercise boosts the immune system.

Monika Fleshner’s research shows that rats who exercise boost their immune systems. Fleshner is a researcher at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Department of Integrative Physiology. In one study, her team had rats run on a wheel for between one and eight weeks; they found increased levels of a certain substance that helps the immune system stay strong even when the body is stressed.

“Maintaining exercise when we are healthy, especially during cold and flu season when exposure to infectious pathogens is common, can help us prevent illness,” Fleshner emailed me.

Other studies support her findings; exercise is clearly preventative medicine. A physician in San Francisco, Daphne Miller, writes “nature prescriptions” that require patients to walk or run in a park for 45 minutes. The Bob L. Burger Recreation Center in Lafayette advertises itself as a cure. It’s ad shows an Rx pad with the words “3x a week” and “your prescription for better health.” Exercise is a preventative measure even if doctors don’t take their own advice; forty percent of doctors never exercise, which seems crazy; it’s like finding out your car mechanic doesn’t have a driver’s license.

But the question remains: if we’re already sick, should we exercise? Or should we hunker down and rest up?

Matt Reddy, a natruropath with an office in Lafayette, prescribes rest.

“The body needs all it’s resource to return to heal,” Reddy said. “The more activity you’re doing in that acute state, the more stress you’re putting on the body.”

Other health practitioners say that you should exercise when you’re sick … sometimes. This approach is sometimes referred to as the “neck rule of thumb,” if you don’t mind mixing up your body parts. The neck rule of thumb states: if your symptoms are all above the neck – runny nose, headache, congestion, sore throat – then light exercise may help. This is because light exercise gets the blood moving and can help battle the feeling of tiredness. This approach recommends smooth things like yoga, fast walking or a Qi Gong class. It discourages super-hard workouts like weight-lifting and team sports out in the cold – which can irritate your airways. Research suggests that extremely vigorous exercise, like running a marathon, can leave you more vulnerable to illness for the next 72 hours.

The neck rule goes on: if your symptoms extend below the neck – chest congestion, hacking cough, upset stomach, aching muscles or a fever – then don’t exercise at all.

“If you are already sick” with symptoms below the neck, Fleshner emailed, “avoid exercise to conserve energy to fight the pathogen and not irritate already irritated lung tissue.”

Reddy points out that being sick is natural. “As a naturopathic doctor, the way we view a viral infection is that it’s not necessarily a bad thing,” he said. “Allowing the body to react to it actually makes you stronger in the long run. It makes for a stronger immune system.”

So let your body do its thing. Exercise lightly if you don’t have a fever and your chest and stomach don’t hurt. Oh, and garlic does ward off the common cold, said a review of the literature that came out in 2014. But, in any case, Reddy would not recommend two whole heads of garlic. “That’s a lot of garlic,” he said. “I’m sure your friends and family were repelled by that.”

In fact they were. But they also might have been trying to kill me.

Leave a Reply