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Colds, Chronic Illness and Exercise: What should you do?

What do you do with exercise when you get “muggle sick” as in a normal cold, when you already have chronic illness? (I’m not going to include c*vid in this as slightly different protocol).


Do you:

  1. Panic. All progress will be instantly lost.

  2. Push through as normal despite feeling awful

  3. Do nothing. Exercise no longer exists

  4. Rest and move as you are able


All answers are valid and understandable. Having had 2 colds (and covid) in the last 5 weeks I’m dreaming of the day I can breathe through both nostrils again. It can be hard to juggle resting and giving yourself a break, whilst also keeping up momentum and continuing to support your body with chronic illness.



1. Panic. All progress will be instantly lost. With chronic illness we work so hard to make any progress so this is a natural response. "Losing progress" varies on a lot of factors including how long you have been training for and how consistently in the first place. You won’t lose progress in the short term (Andrade et al, 2019), around 3-4 weeks you may perceive some difference in your strength (McMaster et al, 2013). With cardio fitness you may notice changes within 3 weeks, with both your capacity and endurance. Thanks to muscle memory and your body remembering how to be better at cardio (Pshilander, 2019) you will be usually be able to restart exercising at a higher point than you previously started at and build back up more quickly than the first time.


Panicking won’t help and will just cause more of a stress response in your body which won't help. Neither will feeling guilty or putting pressure on yourself to get back to it too soon.


2. Push through as normal despite feeling awful Exercise and having increased muscle mass (Wu et al, 2020) has proven to boost our immunity (Barrett et al, 2012). It can help prevent common colds but actually when we exercise too much when we are sick, some research has shown it can suppress our immune response. We want our immune system to try to fight off whatever has invaded us, so doing too much too soon can impact this.The idea of "sweating it out" is incorrect. Your body is working hard to fight the cold, and exercise just increases the demands on it.Pains do not equal gains.


Exercise can be beneficial to helping with cold symptoms as it boosts circulation, but usually at a lower intensity to that you normally train. It can also be important from a chronic illness point of view to keep some level of movement if that feels appropriate but again the dose of movement is going to be less and more in tune with how you are feeling.




3. Do nothing. Exercise no longer exists

In acute illness this may be appropriate. Especially the first 2-3 days when you are feeling more symptomatic as your body really needs rest. If you have any sort of fever, exercise is contradicted until this has subsided (Dick and Diehl, 2014).


It doesn't have to be nothing though. Depending on your lifestyle, it can sometimes be we are already pushing our body more than we would like to due to work, school or home life demands. In which case this walking and functional movement is plenty of physical activity given your cold. If you are resting in bed, you may want to include some gentle mobility movements to help with joint pain or stiffness, or general aches from being less active. Breath work and chest opening movements can also be helpful when very congested or coughing.


4. Rest and move as you are able

This would be ideal as it is not an all or nothing approach - which we try so hard to avoid with chronic illness. It’s adjusting depending on how your body feels. Perhaps lowering the intensity, frequency and duration but doing some rather than none. When juggling multiple chronic conditions, we don't always feel better from resting. Sometimes we may want to add in more movement to help manage other conditions as we feel better when doing so e.g. with EDS to keep joints stable or with PoTS to help combat symptoms.


The main thing is as your symptoms start to improve you do not jump straight back to exercise at the same level and intensity as before. Depending on how the cold impacted you, how long you had not moving your body and whether you are back to baseline, you can judge the level to return to. You would rather ease back too slowly, than go in too hard too soon and end up triggering a flare or the cold symptoms bouncing back. Do what you can, when you can.


For more specific advice to adapting exercise when you live with chronic illness, or if you are struggling with covid or long covid I am opening up more coaching spots in November 2022. Reach out via this link or email me on zoe@activelyautoimmune.com


Zoe


References

Effects of training, detraining, and retraining on strength, hypertrophy, and myonuclear number in human skeletal muscle, Phislander et al, 2019
Effects of aquatic training and detraining on women with fibromyalgia: controlled randomized clinical trial, Andrade et al, 2019
The development, retention and decay rates of strength and power in elite rugby union, rugby league and American football: a systematic review, McMaster et al, 2013 Meditation or Exercise for Preventing Acute Respiratory Infection: A Randomized Controlled Trial, Barrett et al, 2012
Debunking the Myth of Exercise-Induced Immune Suppression: Redefining the Impact of Exercise on Immunological Health Across the Lifespan, Campbell and Turner, 2018
Skeletal muscle antagonizes antiviral CD8+ T cell exhaustion, Wu et al, 2020
Febrile Illness in the Athlete, Dick and Diehl, 2014


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