Workout: When You’re Not at Your Best, Give It a Rest

By Steven E. Levingston
The Washington Post

WASHINGTON ~ Man, did I feel lousy.

Coming down the stairs one frigid Monday morning recently, I was an unsteady, two-ton monster with a spike hammered into my skull. Gait, heavy. Head, foggy. I stood at the dining room window looking out at the yard. A light snow floated before my eyes, but its loveliness was lost on me. I was crushed under a late-season bug.

Bleary as I was, though, an inane question surfaced at the edge of my consciousness: What about my workouts?

I didn’t have to be a virologist to know the gym was out for now. But for how long? Could I work out while sick, if I felt up to it? And when I was ready to sweat again without a fever, how hard could I push it? Getting into the gym or onto the road with good ol’ rock music blasting in my ears takes me away from everything; I leave stress behind and obsess on the beat of Queen or the Traveling Wilburys and think only of my breathing, my heart rate and my survival.

But I’m no fanatic. I run about two to three miles two to three times a week, along with doing a couple of dozen push-ups at each session. That’s it for this middle-aged hack. I just don’t like breaking the pattern. I only feel worse for it, and then I have to build back up again.

So I began wondering, what do the experts say? What do the studies conclude about illness and fitness? Could exercising actually make me worse?

I was back at work within a day, but I was nursing a colleague-annoying cough. By week’s end I had a relapse and slept most of Sunday. A nasty bug, it had attacked my son before me, throwing him under the covers for a day with a 104.5 fever.

During my active periods, I sought answers to my questions – and discovered they were far from clear-cut.

I shot off an email to Todd Miller, an assistant professor of exercise science at George Washington University. Miller, who is a certified strength and conditioning specialist and a weightlifting coach, studies how muscles adapt to exercise. He replied that he wasn’t aware of hard evidence behind any recommendations on working out after an illness. “I’m sure you can find people who will tell you what one should do … but those opinions would be just that,” he said.

Nothing but opinions? I found it hard to believe. How long have people been getting sick? How long have they been exercising? How many academics are out there looking for a study topic? Somebody had to have done a study. The American College of Sports Medicine pointed me to one – published 12 years ago.

The study, conducted by the School of Physical Education at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., sought to determine whether exercising with a cold affects the severity and duration of the illness. The researchers claimed theirs was the first study to tackle the question.

They infected 50 student volunteers of moderate fitness ages 18 to 29 with a cold virus. All of the students came down with colds, and their symptoms, including runny nose, sneezing, sore throat, were measured over a 10-day period. During that time, 34 of the students exercised for 40 minutes every other day, while 16 in a non-exercise control group did nothing.

The study found that the students experienced no greater severity or duration of their symptoms whether they worked out or not.

In the same year, 1997, the Ball State team also looked at lung function among cold sufferers who work out. But few, if any, similar studies have followed, according to experts in the field. Despite the dearth of data, the American College of Sports Medicine, which published the Ball State investigations in its journal, distributes what it calls a “current comment” on exercise and the common cold. The comment offers recommendations from clinical authorities in immunology. Among the advice: If you have had a cold without a fever or body aches, intensive exercise can be safely undertaken a few days after the symptoms have disappeared; if you have had a fever, extreme tiredness, muscle aches or swollen lymph glands, you ought to wait two to four weeks before resuming intensive training.

The college also advises that mild to moderate exercise does not appear to be harmful while sick with a common cold, as long as the symptoms are minor.

Aaron Glatt, who specializes in infectious diseases and is a spokesman for the Infectious Disease Society of America, noted a possible reason for the paucity of studies on illness and fitness: It is difficult to assess exercisers with vague symptoms such as not feeling well. The opportunities to explore patients’ reactions to and recovery from, say, hip replacement surgery are far greater, he said.

To advise ill exercisers, Glatt relies mostly on the wisdom of the ages. “Common sense is a great way to make medical decisions when you’re not dealing with life-and-death situations,” he said. “If a person feels well enough to do some exercise, it is probably a reasonable thing to do.”

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