In Sickness & In Health (On Exercise)

Everything that I’m about to say should be prefaced with this: As a child, I absolutely hated missing school. Sick days were worse than being sick, and I never understood the families that tacked an extra day onto a holiday weekend.  We were already missing learning time, how could you take more away?!

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The sensation of being “sick” is a universal sensation.  Whether it’s mild cold you’re trying to shake without any meds, or so serious that you require a stay with the doctors, we can all agree that feeling sick means feeling shitty.  While it’s impossible to avoid, it is something that we can be prepared for.  Quite often being sick throws a wrench into the gears of your well-lubricated life.  How much it does so, is entirely up to you.

Skipping work.  Chinese food delivery.  Going to bed early.  Sleeping late.  Saltine crackers.  Netflix

These are all things that can be commonplace when we’re sick.  Frequently we also free ourselves from any form of exercise, and our sole set of squats is spread out between visits to the bathroom all day.  If you’re really feeling it, that makes sense, but just like school, I’m not a fan of skipping workouts.  Here’s why:

Skipping workouts is the gateway drug to not working out.

After saying that, I now feel like an overprotective helicopter parent with the automatic doors on their minivan.  It’s not that there’s anything wrong with taking a day to recover and rest, it’s that the decision is so easy to make a habit of.

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What that decision becomes a habit, it makes me wonder about two things.  1) You’re getting sick so frequently that there may be a larger medical issue, and you should visit your doctor.  2) You’re feeling less-than-stellar and using that as an excuse to not workout.

If you’re experiencing Option 1, let’s figure out why you keep getting sick.  Chat with your doctor, then we’ll talk.  If you’re experiencing Option 2, we’re in business.  You see, there are plenty of things that we can do to take care of you.  When I had my first thought for this article, I was drawn to the psychology of when we should, or shouldn’t, skip workouts.  I was reminded that for the physiology side of things, Precision Nutrition published an article within the year on the very topic, called, “Working Out When Sick.”  I’d suggest reading through that for specific options.  They’ve also made a handy infographic you can check out: HERE.

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I’ll let you read the full pieces from them, but here’s one picture I wanted to share as a guide post.  If we need to summarize this chart, and a general pearl of wisdom for training when feeling under the weather, it’s this:

Don’t go hard when you’re sick.

When you’re sick, it’s not the time to set a Personal Record, to up the weights, to cut into that 5k time.  It’s not the time to sneak in an extra set or mile.  It’s a time to take care of yourself, to use the physical activity to move just enough.  Remember, this is a Goldilocks workout: Not too much, not too little, but just right.

Sitting on the couch with your sniffles probably isn’t going to help you feel better.  Going to take the new spin extra-tough spin class, probably is going to make you feel worse.  Taking an easy walk, a bodyweight workout, or cutting sets off of your planned training day is going to be a far better at letting you keep the physical training stimulus, but…

It’s not really about that.  Rather, it’s about how we feel when we make health-enhancing decisions.  How we feel when we invest our energy in ourselves, invest in feeling better, even if at the time it takes a conscious effort to do so.  We’re tapping into our emotional capital of “Willpower,” and while we might not be feeling all that hot, it’s an investment that profits in the long run.

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Now that’s one smart puppy.  He knows that willpower isn’t about “Just do it,” that there’s something underlying structure and system there.  When you’ve built the practice of regular workouts, and that system does not require willpower to follow, not following that system can throw us for such a loop that we need to reboot, and we use up even more willpower in the long run.  It’s that reboot that we’re trying to avoid.

As luck would have it, the exercise that’s most appropriate for us when we’re sick is particularly powerful for our brain, and we’ll feed forward to feel even better in the future.  That’s a pretty damn good result of a casual workout, and a big reason why I think we should quickly double check when facing the question, “Should I workout when sick?”

If you’re facing a day home from work, a potential doctor’s visit, or are worried about being contagious, probably not; I think you’ll be good to go without the workout.  However, if you’re feeling mildly uncomfortable, I believe it’ll be in your best interest to continue the practice you’ve established, and physically modify as appropriate.

Remember, check out the Precision Nutrition article and infographic for specific modifications, and adjust your physical practice to maintain your psychological practice.

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