It’s almost that time of year.
No, we aren’t referring to nights on the couch with a glass of mulled wine or afternoons on the slopes with loved ones — we are referring to flu season, cold season, and “why won’t this cough go away?!” season.
While we are all excited for the opportunity to, as the kids say, “shred the gnar,” we are a lot less excited for the inevitable cold (or worse, flu) that we will all succumb to at one point or another in the coming months.
Along with using up PTO, canceling social obligations, and attempting to keep the house in order, being sick is usually accompanied with the worry that gains may be lost…and that lost weight may be regained.
Before diving into the mental aspect of being “under the weather,” let’s take a look at what the average adult can expect as we head into the winter months.
You Are Probably Going to Get Sick
“But I never get sick! I have a great immune system!” You also have a lot of people with red, dripping noses who envy you greatly.
If you are not a statistical anomaly, chances are you can expect to come down with the common cold 2-3 times a year and, according to the CDC, will likely make a full recovery within 7-10 days. During that time period, you can expect a bouquet of symptoms such as a sore throat, coughing, sneezing, a runny or clogged nose, head and/or body aches, fatigue, and an overall disdain for whoever sneezed in your general direction.
Now that we’ve taken care of the basics, let’s get to the grass-fed, pasture-raised meat of this post: the mental distress that being sick causes.
Generally, there are two thoughts that begin to swirl in a fitness fanatic’s head as that first tickle in the throat appears: “I will lose strength, muscle mass, and progress” and “I am going to gain weight.”
“I will lose strength, muscle mass, and progress!”
Well, yes and no. If we are to assume that a cold lasts, on average, 7-10 days there isn’t much that will change. In fact, if you’ve been consistently hitting the gym, your body may benefit from the break.
If you’ve come down with the flu, strength loss is likely, but it is important to remember that it’s much easier to get back to where you were strength-wise after you’ve recovered.
When you’re on all fours in the bathroom, muttering obscenities to yourself, as you stare into the depths of your very own porcelain throne, try to remember this useful fact: it took you weeks, months, or years to get to where you are now physically; one-to-two weeks of an illness will not erase that work.
You’ll certainly feel weak returning to the gym (once you are no longer contagious, of course), but don’t let that discourage you. We all get sick. You exercise for a better life overall, right? Don’t sweat a two-week derailment.
“I am going to gain weight…”
If you have the flu, you won’t. Let’s move on!
If you have a cold and if you’re holed up on the couch, is it possible to gain weight? Sure. Is it likely that you will gain more than one pound of pure body fat? No. Many people who take time away from the gym due to illness report that they feel flabby, softer, and “not as defined.” Feeling flabby, softer, and “not as defined” does not mean that you are. Sure, you may look a little softer. Water retention will do that. Lack of inflammation from stepping away from weightlifting will do that as well.
However, as long as you’re not pounding pumpkin cupcakes and washing them down with gallons of milk while you’re sick, significant weight gain is not something that you should worry about.
Remember: it takes an additional 3,500 calories, outside of what you burn daily, to gain one pound of body fat. Even if you just can’t say no to the comfort that a grilled cheese provides, you would need to eat eight of them to hit that calorie target and would then need to ensure that you eat 3,500 calories over your total daily energy expenditure for one pound of added fat.
Here is the one thing that you should not do when you’re sick: eat in a caloric deficit. In order to fight an illness, your body needs energy. Denying it the nutrients it desperately needs because you have a weight-loss goal in mind is unkind to the glorious sack of skin that gets you from Point A to Point B on a regular basis.
If you want to err on the side of caution, simply add more vegetables to your diet and cut down on the carbs that you usually consume pre or post workout. For muscle maintenance, keep up with the protein.
The most important thing you should be doing nutrition-wise? Drinking a lot of water.
Can I Exercise If I’m Sick?
The Mayo Clinic recommends that “mild to moderate physical activity is usually OK if you have a common cold and no fever. Exercise may even help you feel better by opening your nasal passages and temporarily relieving nasal congestion.”
Not so fast! Before you cast aside those wads of tissues that were piled up in your lap, lace up your shoes, and head to the gym, there are a few caveats to this recommendation:
- If your symptoms are below the neck (chest congestion, a wet cough, vomiting, upset stomach) and/or if you have body aches, a fever, or fatigue, do not exercise.
- If your symptoms are above the neck (runny nose, nasal congestion, sneezing, minor sore throat), exercise is typically an okay thing to do.
Exercise, however, does not mean that you should head to Jungle Gym for a high-intensity workout.
When we’re healthy and when we push ourselves in a workout (we’re breathing hard, sweating, and our heart rate is up), a stress response is awakened in the body. A healthy body is able to adapt to this stress; this is why, over time, you’re able to bust out 20 burpees with the same effort that 10 burpees used to require — your body has adapted to this specific stressor and has become fitter and stronger.
A sick body, on the other hand, cannot handle the same amount of stress. Your immune system is working overtime to fight that pesky illness. All a stress-inducing workout will do is prolong your illness and force you to spend more money on DayQuil.
Instead, when sick, go for a walk or engage in some low-intensity cardio like biking. Give yoga or Tai Chi a try. Don’t force movement for the sake of movement. If you feel awful or overly fatigued, the best thing you can do for your body is sleep. If you feel like you can go for a jog, test the waters. Only do what you feel your body is capable of doing, not what you wish your body was capable of doing.
The Bottom Line
There’s no eloquent way to put it: being sick sucks.
It sucks a whole lot more when you’re sick during the time of year where companies target audiences by promising them that they don’t have to succumb to holiday weight gain; that they can be “summer body ready” all year long; that there are ways to curb cravings and say “No!” to that slice of holiday pie; that all you have to do is stay active! It’s enough to make anyone with a cold feel like they should be doing something active to “make up for” the extra calories that typically coincide with the winter months.
Don’t let the internal Armageddon, the “should I work out or shouldn’t I?,” that an illness elicits become a source of anxiety. Practice grace, keep reminding yourself that you will not lose all progress, and find some sun-kissed sand in the piles of snow (i.e. a silver lining) — there’s no better excuse for binging on mindless reality television than being bed-ridden with a cold.
(And, for the sake of all who surround you: if you’re sick, don’t force yourself into the gym. We love you SO much, but we do not love upper respiratory infections.)