We are in the midst of cold and flu season. Have you taken the precautionary measures to avoid headaches and runny noses looming in every office building, school classroom and store this season?

We spoke with Chris McGilmer, MD, a sports and family medicine specialist at the Kaiser Permanente North Hollywood Medical Offices, who gave his expert advice on how to best protect the immune system this season and whether or not it’s okay to work out when sick.

This is what he shared:

How does exercise support our immune health?

Exercise, along with other healthy habits, can help strengthen our immune system. A healthy immune system protects us from infection and disease, including the viruses that cause colds and flu.

Some research has found that people who exercise regularly are less prone to illness because they have a better immune system response. Plus, exercise can help us manage stress and reduce the release of stress-related hormones. This is important because stress can be detrimental to our immune function. Other studies have found that exercise can help flush bacteria out of the lungs and airways – thus reducing our risk of respiratory illness – and that exercise can boost our number of infection-fighting white blood cells.

Is it okay to work out when you’re sick? When is it safe to exercise?

Exercise is recommended as long as your illness is mild and feel well enough to work out. For example, most people who have a common cold or mild upper respiratory symptoms, like a stuffed or runny nose, are generally able to work out. You’ll very likely have to lower the intensity and you’ll definitely need to monitor your heart rate and breathing. Certain decongestants and cold medications can increase the heart rate. Although some individuals with asthma and other chronic respiratory health conditions can exercise without any issues, it’s best that they reach out to their doctor to see if they can continue being physically active while they are sick.

Please keep in mind that overexertion can make you feel worse and slow down your recovery.

When are you too sick to work out? When is exercise not recommended?

If you’re experiencing a fever of 101.5 degrees or more, body aches, congestion, gastrointestinal issues, or feeling weakness, please wait a few days before working out. Also, drink plenty of fluids while you’re recovering to avoid dehydration both while you’re sick and when you return to your fitness regimen.

When is it okay to return to your exercise routine?

Typically, it’s okay to return to your exercise routine 48 hours after a fever has broken or diarrhea or vomiting has stopped. Your best gauge is your overall well-being. If you feel good, great. If your body is telling you to take another day off, listen to it!

 

Can you really sweat out a cold?

No. Sweating methods, such as a sauna or steam room, inhaling warm steam and exercise can provide temporary relief by relieving nasal congestion and loosening up mucus, but they will not shorten your recovery time. It normally takes seven to 10 days to fully recover from a common cold. If you choose to incorporate a “sweat out method” as part of your treatment plan, drink plenty of fluids and be on the lookout for possible signs of dehydration. When you sweat, you not only release water; you also release electrolytes.

 

Prevention Tips
  1. Get an annual flu shot. This is your best line of defense.
  2. Eat a healthy, balanced diet. Our immune system needs a variety of vitamins, nutrients, and minerals to function well.
  3. Get enough sleep. Inadequate sleep has been linked to a weakened immune system.
  4. Wash your hands constantly. A 20-second wash with soap and warm water is the best, but if water isn’t available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
  5. Avoid touching your face. The most common way germs get into the body is via the face.
  6. Manage your stress levels. Chronic stress can increase your risk of illness.
  7. Avoid overtraining and exerting your body. Listen to your body and give it time to recover.
  8. If you exercise in a gym or fitness club, sanitize the equipment before and after your workout to minimize the spread of germs.

Content contributed by Chris McGilmer, MD, a sports and family medicine specialist at the Kaiser Permanente North Hollywood Medical Offices. 


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