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Should you workout when sick? How does protein consumption help?

Consistency is important for making gains and achieving fitness goals. But you also need to listen to your biological signals and take breaks when they are needed. Pushing your body when it’s not in the right state to workout effectively can cause more harm than good, and taking a few days off from your normal exercise routine will not set you back significantly in your journey.

This article will discuss some of the factors involved when deciding whether or not you should workout while sick. Typically, it’s better to err on the side of maximum caution and take a break from the gym or your standard exercise schedule when you aren’t feeling well. However, there are a few ways you can mitigate the potential impact of being sick on your fitness routine.

What happens to the body when you’re sick?

Before directly answering the question of whether or not you should exercise when sick, it’s important to define what “being sick” actually means and what happens in the body during this time.

The concept of being sick can refer to many different kinds of ailments, from the common cold that we all deal with from time to time to a more serious viral or respiratory infection. Some of the more typical symptoms of being sick include things like:

The symptoms of being sick vary from person to person. They can also change depending on the specific kind of illness you are dealing with. 

Many of the symptoms you experience are actually a result of the body’s activation of the immune system in an attempt to combat the pathogens trying to disrupt cell function. For example, people experience fevers because the body heats itself up as a way to inactivate many common viruses.

How do you decide whether or not you should workout while sick?

According to medical research, one easy way to decide whether or not you should workout while sick is the “neck test.” If symptoms of your sickness are above the neck – such as a stuffy nose or headache – you can probably still participate in a workout or athletic competition, as long as you are feeling up to it. On the other hand, if symptoms are below the neck – like soreness or intense tightness in the extremities, chills or fever – your best bet is to take a break from physical activity and give your body some rest so you can recover and get back to full strength.

As mentioned previously, it’s always better to err on the side of caution. If you aren’t sure whether or not you have the energy to make it through a workout, don’t risk it by pushing yourself too far. When you workout while sick you are more susceptible to dehydration and dizziness, which can not only impede your recovery from being sick but may also put you in danger of injury while working out.

On the other hand, if you are feeling relatively mild symptoms or just generally “under the weather” and you don’t feel like interrupting your workout routine, you’ll likely be fine to resume your normal pattern of activity. You can always split the difference between the two options and continue to workout but do so at a reduced intensity rate. Less intense exercise can still provide you with a boost without compromising your immune function.

What impact does protein consumption have on being sick?

While most people associate protein with muscle building and recovery, research studies indicate that protein has a significant impact on the body’s immune system as well. Specifically, the amino acid arginine is believed to play a role in preserving the function of the body’s immune system and fighting off infections. Data showed that it boosted the efficiency of T-cells (or white blood cells) in responding to infections in the body.

It can also be a good idea to change the way you consume protein when sick. For example, if you typically use a whey protein powder to create protein shakes that you drink during the day, it might be better to switch to a different blend that doesn't use any dairy ingredients. Many people are sensitive to the consumption of dairy, particularly when a cold has their stomach feeling upset. By combining various different protein sources, you can still hit your daily target for grams of protein and carbohydrates without forcing yourself to eat things that don't agree with you.

Maintaining sufficient protein intake when you're sick is important, but a high protein diet should also be supplemented by antioxidants that help your body's immune response to being sick. Make sure to consume plenty of Vitamin C, healthy carbs, and fluids. Depending on what kind of illness you are dealing with, it can also be a good idea to consume electrolytes – particularly if you are sick in a way that has caused you to lose fluid, such as with a stomach virus.  

Other factors to consider when working out sick

There are certainly risks involved when you are thinking about working out while under the weather. But there could be risks involved with skipping your workouts as well. New scientific studies indicate a correlation between muscle mass and the effectiveness of your body's T-cells, which have a tendency to become "exhausted" when fighting against chronic infections. In this way, spending time working out to build muscle through exercise can help you curb some of the side effects of being sick.

You'll also want to consider your supplementation. As mentioned, adding antioxidants or switching up your normal protein routine can be beneficial. If you typically consume muscle growth supplements that contain a lot of caffeine or sugar, you may want to temporarily skip them in favor of plain water. Other healthy supplements to consume when you are under the weather include zinc and vitamin D. Be careful when it comes to juices – even though they are often touted as a healthy drink to consume vitamins, many of them are full of sugars and other artificial additives that can slow your recovery or negatively impact your blood glucose levels.

Making the final call on whether you should work out while sick

Whether you are a professional bodybuilder or a more casual gym-goer, getting sick is never a positive experience – especially when coronavirus (COVID-19) is still a threat to the general population and looks to remain that way for the time being. Whether or not you are too sick to put your body under the physical stress of exercise is a personal decision that depends on your individual goals and the severity of your symptoms. 

Generally, if you feel mild "above the neck" symptoms like a sore throat or congestion, you should be fine to exercise – although you may want to lower the intensity a bit. If you're feeling body aches, a fever, or other serious symptoms, you may want to skip the workout. Missing even a couple days from your workout will not set you back significantly from weight loss progress or other fitness goals. Whether or not you decide to workout, maintain sufficient protein intake and add other supplements that will boost your immune function to get you back to 100% as soon as possible.

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