I’ve been ill, when can I exercise again?

I’ve had a horrible cold, headache, cough and generally felt unwell for the past few days.  This means I have done no exercise at all, not even taken the dog on her usual 4 mile walk.  So I was interested in the advice about exercising in the ‘recovery period’ of a minor illness.  Here’s some of the information I found.

The saying “if the symptoms are above the neck, go ahead and exercise” seems to hold some truth.    So a runny nose, watery eyes and even a mild sore throat does not mean you should wait for all these symptoms to completely disappear before you begin to exercise moderately, e.g. a walk or swim".

Apparently, research from Ball State University in Indiana found that infecting subjects with a mild cold virus did not affect their ability to exercise moderately. Lung capacity of the infected subjects was the same as that of the healthy ones, and running on a treadmill for 15 minutes felt no harder.  

However, if your symptoms are below the neck, for example a chesty cough, aching limbs then the general advice is not to exercise and to rest.  If you have a fever you should not exercise at all.

If your body is already fighting an infection, by exercising hard, you are stressing your immune system further and may allow the virus to strengthen its hold.  It is therefore likely to hang around even longer.

But how long after an illness do you wait before you start back on your usual classes or exercise regime?  Well, first of all, it is easy to underestimate how long a virus can take hold, even a common cold on average lasts a week and sometimes up to 14 days.  I must admit to being impatient and a bit grumpy after three days!

Another thing to remember is, if you have taken a week off exercise and been relatively inactive, you'll lose about 30 percent of your fitness, especially your cardio output.  Whilst this is somewhat disheartening, remember it will usually only take a couple of weeks to regain your fitness once you are well.

So the general advice is to return to exercise slowly and make sure you do the following things:

  • Make sure you have not had a fever for 48 hours and have had some reasonable sleep

  • Keep the duration shorter than your normal routine

  • Make sure you are well hydrated

  • Ensure you are eating well (especially if you were not eating during the illness) in order to provide the energy you will need for your exercise

  • Consider a walk or jog outside, you have probably spent a considerable amount of time in doors so getting out into fresh air and daylight is important

  • Do not do a high intensity class that is likely to challenge you physically, you will still be recovering so if your system then needs to repair your muscles you run the risk of feeling ill again.

  • Wash your hands, particularly if you are in public places

  • Take a probiotic on a regular basis (this can help prevent further infections)

  • Build up to you ‘normal’ regime slowly to allow the body to adapt

  • Ensure you stretch after exercise

Finally, listen to your body and don’t be too inpatient to get back to where you were too quickly.  This is the advice I suspect I am guilty of ignoring, but I am on day 5 tomorrow so I think a walk is in order!