Getting sick can have a negative effect on your progress as you work towards reaching your fitness goals. But as much as you try to avoid it, getting the flu is a likely occurrence during those cold winter months. It’s especially true in a gym environment where you have 50 to 75 people crammed in a group fitness class, 100 people on treadmills and elliptical trainers in the cardio area and everyone else wandering the workout floor. All it takes is a cough or a sneeze to spread the flu and ruin someone’s holiday season. During this time of year, members of a fitness club get both their exercise and the flu.
Each winter millions of people suffer from the flu, a highly contagious infection. It can cause mild to severe symptoms including:
- Sore throat
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Muscle or body aches
- Tiredness (fatigue)
- Vomiting or diarrhea (more common in children)
Getting the flu is never fun and can have a negative effect on our day-to-day lives. For those of us who are working hard at the gym, a week of bed rest and illness can have a significant effect on our progress and feel like a major setback. You don’t have to be a victim to the flu season. With information on prevention and treatment you can get through the winter season like a champ!
About the Influenza Virus
The influenza virus spreads easily from person to person, primarily when a person coughs or sneezes. The virus enters the body through the nose or throat and takes between 1 to 4 days for the person to develop symptoms. Someone suffering from influenza can be infectious from the day before they develop symptoms to 7 days afterwards.
Influenza viruses are classified as type A, B or C. Type A viruses are found in many kinds of animals (i.e. ducks, chickens, pigs, whales and humans). Type B viruses widely circulate in humans. Type C viruses have been found in humans, pigs and dogs and causes mild respiratory infections (but not epidemics).
Type A influenza is the most dangerous of the three and is believed to be responsible for the global outbreaks that claimed the lives of millions in the last century. Three major pandemics occurred:
- 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic (at least 40 million casualties)
- 1957 Asian Flu pandemic (at least 2 million casualties)
- 1968 Hong Kong Flu pandemic (at least 1 million casualties)
In the 21st century we have developed more sophisticated tools for prevention and treatment to avoid another pandemic in the future.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends three actions to fight the flu:
- Take time to get the flu vaccine.
- Take everyday preventative actions to stop the spread of germs.
- Take flu antiviral drugs if your doctor prescribes them.
Vaccination is the primary measure for preventing influenza and reducing the symptoms should you contract the virus. Constant changes in influenza viruses mean that the vaccines need to be adjusted each year to include the most recent circulating influenza A and B strains.
There are everyday steps you can take to prevent the spread of germs, including the flu virus.
- Cover your nose and mouth when you cough or sneeze.
- Wash your hands often with soap and water.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth (which is how germs spread).
- Try to avoid close contact with people who are sick.
- If you (or your child) get sick with the flu, limit contact with others as much as possible to prevent the spread of the illness. Stay at home for at least 24 hours after the fever is gone (except to seek medical attention or get medications).
For more information on how to prevent getting the flu this winter, click here.
For most people, the flu is an upper respiratory tract infection that lasts several days and requires symptomatic treatment only. Within a matter of days the person’s body will eliminate the virus. If you get the flu, antiviral drugs are available (by prescription only) that can effectively treat the virus. They are best started within 2 days of getting sick and can help to produce a much milder sickness overall.
Can Exercise Help Prevent the Flu?
Possibly. The most effective way to prevent illness is to keep your immune system strong. Taking care of yourself by eating high quality nutritious foods, getting adequate sleep and reducing stress can go a long way toward helping you prevent illness. According to recent findings, when moderate exercise is repeated on a near daily basis, there is a cumulative immune-enhancing effect. What does that mean? It means the immune system has a greater ability to fight off illness with regular exercise.
On the other hand, extreme forms of exercise can have a negative effect on your immune system (i.e. training for a marathon, hours at the gym). Studies show that extreme workouts can decrease the number of white blood cells in the body and increase the level of stress hormones as well. These emergency hormones help you cope with physical stress but can also increase your likelihood of illness.
Returning to Exercise After the Flu
Regardless of how “guilty” you feel or how badly you feel the need to exercise you should be responsible and stay away from the gym until you are symptom free. Returning to the gym before you are better causes two problems:
- Exercise and stress may slow down the recovery process.
- You may be contagious and get other people at the gym sick as well.
Be responsible and stay home until you are feeling at least 80% better.
Final Thoughts …
Exercising and working out can make us feel invicible. We are strong, fit, energetic and able to accomplish many things with our bodies. We feel like Superman … but even Superman has his kryptonite. As strong as you may be, you can’t stop the influenza virus from entering your body if you are exposed to someone coughing or sneezing in your immediate area.
If you happen to get sick … be responsible and take care of yourself, be respectful of others by not exposing them to the virus and take this opportunity to slow down and be good to your body as you recover. Focus on good nutrition and hydration, adequate rest and relaxation as your body works hard to fight off infection and getting back to good health.