How to get back to your workout responsibly after an illness

Expert advice from a fitness expert, a nutritionist and a physician.

Expert advice from a fitness expert, a nutritionist and a physician

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There's nothing like the flu or a cold to derail a fitness regimen. What are the best ways to get back into it without losing your stride or overdoing it? We spoke with a fitness expert, a nutritionist and a family physician for tips on how to make sure your illness doesn't sideline your 2019 fitness goals, including how long to wait after being down and out, what the best foods and drinks are to take in and which ones you should avoid, and more.

What the trainer says

As a distance running coach and founder of The Rooster Project running club, KC Gallo knows what it takes to complete marathons. But she also knows when to slow down and recover — something she believes can be just as important as training.

The accomplished athlete's advice for how to get back into your workouts post-sickness? "It all depends on what you actually end up being sick with," Gallo says.

"With a cold, you're tired. You can still kind of keep up your workouts, depending on your energy level. With the flu, you're right out. You're taking five to 10 days off to make sure that you're back to eating, you're back to your normal energy levels."

When it comes to bronchitis, or anything lung-related, "you need to talk to a doctor to see what you can push through," says Gallo. "A lot of the time, you could do more damage than good if you have a respiratory issue."

After your rest period, she suggests taking note of your energy levels and easing into your routine. This means "slowing down the intensity of your workout, pulling it back just a little bit, in order to get your body back into it, in order to then slowly increase back to what you were."

Gallo also says it can take about a week after a bout of sickness to feel like your old self, so don't be too hard on yourself if you don't feel great right away. "If you were just starting [a fitness routine], then you would probably need a week or two to get back in."

"If you're going from a full training cycle or you're at the gym every day, then it would probably only take you two or three days to get back into it."

What the nutritionist says

Joy McCarthy, a Toronto-based holistic nutritionist and author of Joyous Health and Joyous Detox, says there are a few things to consider food-, hydration- and supplement-wise when getting back out there after being thrown down by sickness.

First off, McCarthy believes that we should be taking vitamin D as a preventative measure against illness year-round, not just in the winter. According to McCarthy, vitamin D is good for the immune system. "[It] can really help your body better identify viruses and bacteria, and destroy them, so even if you do get sick, you get better faster," she says.

McCarthy recommends adults take about 4,000 units per day in the winter and 1,000 in the summer months. She also notes that you can head to your doctor to have your blood analyzed to see how much of the good stuff you have naturally in your blood — this will help you better determine how much vitamin D you should take each day, but it there may be an out-of-pocket cost to get the test done.

McCarthy also recommends staying super hydrated. "When you're sick, especially if you have any sort of congestion, the more water you can drink, the better, because that helps to flush things out," she says.

"You lose a lot of hydration when you have any sort of congestion in your head or in your chest. So drink filtered water — lots of it — especially if you have a fever, [when] you can get really dehydrated."

When it comes to what we pick up at the grocery store, McCarthy says food that comes in a rainbow of colours is your best bet — avoid anything processed. "[Processed] foods are going to stress the body, potentially increase inflammation and slow down your body's ability to fight infection, [because] your body's trying to balance its blood sugar," she says.

McCarthy recommends avoiding the refined sugars in things like baked goods and white pasta. Instead, reach for orange foods, such as squash, sweet potato and carrots, because they contain loads of beta-carotene, which is good for the immune system.

She also suggests looking to protein, which helps to make the antibodies in our system that fight infection, and anything that will aid in gut health, like fermented foods such as kimchi, sauerkraut, kefir, tempeh and yogurt that doesn't have a ton of sugar (avoid flavoured yogurt, McCarthy says).

What the doctor says

Dr. Haley Draper, a Toronto-based family physician, prescribes a few rules to apply before jumping back into your favourite mode of exercise. "There is no hard and fast rule about returning to exercise after being unwell with a viral infection," Dr. Draper says. "Rest, including rest from exercise, is often a helpful way to expedite recovery from an illness."

Dr. Draper advises that we do not ignore serious symptoms — if you have a fever, dizziness or shortness of breath, back off; if you merely have a cold, you might engage in some light physical activity. She recommends a gradual return to exercise over the course of a few days with mild symptoms. "If you decide to exercise, take it slow and gradually increase intensity."

She also reiterates McCarthy's advice about drinking lots of water. "It is important to stay well hydrated when sick. Water is best and there is rarely a need for specialty fluids." 

"The kind and amount of food is often of less importance, unless your illness includes vomiting or diarrhea," says Dr. Draper. "If there are gastrointestinal symptoms, sticking with more bland food and avoiding spicy, acidic or sugary foods is often recommended." If you do have a stomach virus, it may take you a few days, or even one week, before your body is ready for a sweat session.

Dr. Draper is a bit more cautious when it comes to recovering from influenza. She says you may need as long as one to two weeks before you're ready to get back into working out.

As all three experts point out, it's imperative that you listen to your body before you head out for exercise and also during your workout. Don't push yourself too hard when coming back from an illness — be more gradual with your intensity, and you'll be able to ease back into your routine in no time.


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