Sniffles don't stop dedicated exercise fanatics

Some say they even feel better, but serious illness requires rest

Health & Fitness

April 25, 2004|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,Special to the Sun

Lisa Beckerman, 37, a sales manager at Verizon, works out under the guidance of a personal trainer six mornings a week.

She's been a dedicated exerciser since 1992 and has been training with Bryan Lewinski, owner of Home Groan Fitness, for more than two years. "I'm very conscientious about my health and also my weight," says the Baltimore resident.

And she's not about to let a little thing like a sniffle get in the way of her cardio and weight-lifting regimen.

"If I had a cold, I would work out," she says. "I would probably always work out, unless I had a fever."

Al Greuter of Columbia, a runner with the Howard County Striders, also exercises when he's feeling sneezy. Sometimes, the exercise makes him feel better, "but there are times," he says, "when I've gone out and gone a half-mile from home and said, 'Forget this.' "

With the weather finally warming, many people are starting exercise routines or ratcheting up their winter regimens. All over the region, bicycles are being repaired, sneakers are coming out of mothballs and tennis rackets are being re-strung.

But what's a devoted exerciser to do when the springtime allergies or sniffles strike? Is it a good idea to exercise with a cold or the flu, or does it make more sense to wait until the symptoms disappear?

As Beckerman and Greuter know, it's OK to exercise with a cold, as long as you listen to your body and stop if you feel lousy. But working out when you have a more serious illness can be a big mistake, experts say.

You can work out if you have a cold, but you should not work out if you have the flu," says Lewinski, the Pikesville trainer who works with Beckerman. He explained that the micro-tears in muscles that are the natural result of resistance training can make achy flu muscles that much achier.

On mornings when you feel less than 100 percent, a simple check can help you decide whether to lace up those sneakers.

If the illness is above the neck -- watery eyes, runny nose, scratchy throat or cough -- the sneakers get tied. But if it's below the neck -- achy joints, fever, or upset stomach -- go ahead and hit the snooze button.

Allergy symptoms typically fall above the neck and would usually indicate a green light for exercise, according to Randy Toth, an athletic trainer who works at Union Memorial Sports Medicine Clinic in Timonium.

Mild exercise may actually help some people get over a cold. After you've decided to exercise, start slowly, he advises. "Participate for 10 minutes at mild to moderate intensity. ... If your symptoms have subsided, go ahead."

If you feel worse, stop. Lewinski says he teaches his clients "to listen to their bodies. If they're getting sick and getting muscle cramping and soreness, I would tell them to cancel the appointment. Usually that's a sign that they're getting the flu or something like that."

Exercise for people with respiratory infections can bring on coughing, wheezing and bronchial spasms. If those symptoms appear, Toth advises taking time off from exercise.

And although it would be OK to work out with a cold, a person with a cold is likely to breathe through his or her mouth, increasing chances for dehydration. Being well hydrated is always important, but especially so when you are under the weather.

"If you're sick in the summer and then you go out and run, that compounds dehydration and can set you up for a heat stroke," Toth says.

In some cases, Toth notes, exercise can suppress the immune system, making it difficult for the body to fight illness. Taking a few days off to recuperate may be more beneficial than powering through a workout only to have an illness linger for weeks.

"Chances are, if you [exercise] at a higher intensity, you may be setting yourself back," he explains.

For many athletes, the pressure to train for a big event such as a marathon or triathlon keeps them working out and slugging Gatorade when they ought to be in bed slurping chicken soup.

Dwight Galt, director of strength and conditioning for University of Maryland, College Park, works with some 700 athletes at the school and says he "constantly" deals with kids who insist on playing when they don't feel well.

In most cases, athletes with colds will play, Galt says. "If you've got a common cold, something like that, usually we're going to plow through it."

But won't a kid with a cold play worse?

Not necessarily, Galt says. In many cases, the sheer mental toughness of the athlete may compensate for any reduction in athletic prowess. However, an athlete on antibiotics is likely to be sidelined, Galt adds.

"That means they have an infection they're trying to fight," he says. "Excessive athletic activity will hurt their ability to fight it. If the kid's got a 24-hour illness, then we turn it into a 72, that's not to anybody's benefit."

Dedicated exerciser Beckerman believes her devotion to physical fitness has kept her cold-free for many years. "It's been a long time since I've been really sick," she says. "If I feel like I'm getting a cold, I just continue with my routine and it goes away."

Use your head, literally

Should you exercise if you're under the weather?

According to trainers and others in the medical community, if you aren't feeling well, you can still work out if:

* Your symptoms are "above the neck" and are limited to a runny nose, sore throat or itchy eyes.

* After a few minutes of moderate exercise, your symptoms recede.

Don't exercise if:

* Symptoms are "below the neck" and include body aches, stomach problems or respiratory difficulties.

* After a few minutes of exercise, you feel worse.

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