by Martha Hicks Leta
Judging by the numbers, this year’s flu season is shaping up to be a real whopper. If you haven’t already caught this year’s flu, you’re probably doing everything in your power to avoid catching it, but as you think about the progress you’ve made with your workouts, you may be wondering whether you should continue your routine or crawl into a sterile bubble until flu season passes.
As you weigh the facts, you should consider, once again, the benefits your regular exercise regimen should have on your overall health and your body’s ability to fight illness. “Findings continue to support the benefit of regular exercise in strengthening the immune system, enabling it to fight viral and bacterial infections,” according to the good people at WebMD.com. Why? Exercise causes white blood cells, which fight infections, to blitz through your body more quickly, fighting bacteria and viruses (such as flu) more efficiently. To achieve this benefit it’s good to have at least 30 minutes of aerobic activity each day. So, just because it’s flu season, you really don’t want to pull the plug on all that progress you’re making with your workouts, and you shouldn’t have to.
Until the “All Clear” signal is given on flu season, here are a few strategies to deploy before, during and after your workout to keep your germ exposure to a minimum and your workout to a maximum.
Before Your Workout
- Talk to your doctor about getting a flu shot. Influenza vaccines are available through local health departments, health care providers and most pharmacies. The CDC recommends that everyone over the age of six months receive an annual flu vaccine. It’s especially important to get the flu shot if you have asthma, diabetes, lung disease or are age 65 or older. You should also get the flu shot of you live with or care for someone at high risk, or if you’re pregnant. The flu can hit hard and set off a string of other medical problems, including pneumonia, not to mention lost productivity.
- Wash your hands often. During flu season, you may feel like a fanatic, but now is a great time to tap into your inner clean freak and ask yourself, “What Would Felix Unger Do?” He’d clean it, spray it, wipe it, wash it. In fact, ask any doctor or nurse how often they wash their hands through the course of a day: “I wash my hands or use a hand sanitizer before and after every patient,” says Christopher Tolcher, MD, a pediatrician in the Los Angeles area and clinical assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine in Los Angeles. “I probably wash my hands 40 to 50 times a day.” Felix would be proud.
- Keep surfaces clean of germs- Again, say it with me, WWFUD? Frequently used objects such as cell phones, keyboards, steering wheels, door knobs, pens and sink faucets can harbor the germs of every other person who’s been in contact. Wipe these surfaces in your home or office daily, and use alcohol based hand sanitizer in between. Keep hands off of your face and especially away from your eyes.
- Get your rest, plenty of water and quality nutrition. Its unfortunate, but many of us don’t pay attention to our sleeping and eating habits until we get sick. Only then will we start pounding the fluids and nutrients. Get your healthy food groups in daily—whole grains, lean proteins, healthy fats, fresh fruits and vegetables. Your body can’t take care of you if you don’t take care of it. Feed it well and give it a good rest.
During your workout
- Wash Your Hands Before and After Your Work Out- Not to belabor the point, but washing your hands before your workout will keep you from spreading bacteria. Washing your hands after will keep you from picking germs spread by all those other people who didn’t think to wash their hands like you did.
- Avoid Touching Your Face – Your eyes, nose and mouth are the main portals for bacteria and viruses. Don’t show them in if you don’t want them as guests in your body.
- Bring Two Towels – Bring two different colored towels. Designate one as your personal towel and use the other to wipe down equipment before and after use.
- Disinfect – Most gyms should have squirt bottles of powerful disinfectant lying around. Don’t be shy about using one or asking for one before you hunker down on that mat or yoga ball for your ab work. Better yet, bring your own mat for classes that require prolonged floor work. At least you know where it’s been.
- Don’t Overdo It! Flu season is not the time to indulge in and prolonged extreme workouts. Studies show taxing your body too much can decrease the number of white blood cells flowing throughout your body while increasing the level of stress hormones in the bloodstream. Your trainer will help you keep you out of the red zone during flu season.
After your workout
- Take It OFF! Peel off those workout clothes and shower as soon as you’re able. Your sweaty clothes are the perfect breeding ground for bacteria. If you don’t have time for a shower, at least wash your hands or wipe them down with hand sanitizer. No matter where you’ve been all day, it’s a good idea for you (and your kids) to change clothes as soon as you get home.
- Rehydrate and Replenish. After you’ve taxed your body with a challenging workout, be sure to recharge with a dose of protein and plenty of water.
If you do get sick
Determine if it’s a cold or the flu. A cold will usually hit “above the neck” and consist of a stuffed head and maybe a sore throat. The flu will strike above and below the neck and involves body aches, fever, chest congestion, coughing and often gastro-intestinal distress. Mayo Clinic physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist Dr. Edward Laskowski, M.D. says, “Mild to moderate physical activity is usually OK if you have a garden-variety cold and no fever. Exercise may even help you feel better by opening your nasal passages and temporarily relieving nasal congestion, though you may consider reducing the intensity of your workout until you’re feeling better.”
But if your symptoms are “below the neck” lay off the exercise, especially if there is a fever involved. A fever is a sign that your body is battling a viral or bacterial infection. Exercising while taxed with a fever may stress your body even more and leave you dehydrated, complicating your symptoms and delaying your recovery from the flu. Also, the flu is contagious and spreads mainly through droplets made when someone coughs, sneezes, talks, or sweats. Do your trainer and fellow gym members a favor and keep it to yourself if you catch it.
The bottom line is, if you do get sick, listen to your body. If you have a cold and feel miserable, there’s no crime in taking off for a day or two, as long as you get back to it as soon as you’re able. If you have the flu, definitely wait a good few days after your fever resolves before returning to the gym. And, as always, check with your doctor if you aren’t sure if it’s OK to exercise.
Read more to find out whether you should exercise with cold or flu symptoms:
WebMD Exercise & Flu
WebMD How Doctors Keep Germs At Bay
WebMD Cold & Flu Map Tool