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Should Sickness Sideline Your Training?

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Don’t lose weeks’ worth of training gains sidelined with a cold or flu. Here’s how to keep your immune system as strong as your bench press.

Author: By Guillermo Escalante, MBA, ATC, CSCS; Photographer: Rich Baker; Model: Marco Cardona

You may be able to bench press 150-pound dumbbells and squat more than 500 pounds for reps but that doesn’t mean you can’t get shut down at least once this season by a microscopic virus. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the common cold and influenza (known as the flu) are among the top reasons people miss work, school or the gym and have to call on their doctor. While many request a prescription for an antibiotic for their ailment, they don’t realize that both the common cold and the flu are caused by viruses, not bacteria. Since antibiotics kill bacteria, they’re ineffective at curing the cold or the flu.

Dr. Glenn Miya, an internal medicine and pediatric physician in Claremont, California, says: “Physicians will usually only prescribe antibiotics to their patients when the symptoms of the cold and/or flu have continued for more than 7–10 days. Symptoms of the cold or flu lasting more than 7–10 days usually indicate a bacterial infection has developed in the lungs, sinuses or ears that require antibiotic treatment to help combat the bacterial infection.”

Another important myth to debunk about the cold and/or flu goes completely against what your mother told you about getting sick. When you go out in the cold without a jacket, there’s simply no scientific evidence to suggest that you can get a cold from direct exposure to cold weather or from getting chilled (or overheated). While there are some scientific explanations as to why you’re more likely to get the cold or flu when the climate is colder, there’s no direct correlation to cold-weather exposure and getting that unwanted flu or cold. Certainly it’s true that most colds and flu occur during the fall and winter months in North America, but they’re spread for different reasons.

 The cold and the flu, which are caused by different viruses, are typically transmitted from a person who is infected with one of the viruses. Although the cold and the flu are similar in nature, flu symptoms are more severe than that of a cold and typically include chills, fever, muscle pains, severe headaches, coughing, runny nose, watery eyes, weakness, fatigue and general discomfort. (A cold will typically not have symptoms of chills, fever or muscle pains.) A person infected with a virus is typically most contagious during the second or third day of infection. In cases of the flu, which is usually accompanied by a fever, the virus is most contagious when the fever is the highest. Touching a surface contaminated with cold/flu germs (such as a dumbbell, weight plate or water fountain) and then touching your nose, mouth or eyes is how these viruses are spread. You can also catch the virus by encountering airborne microscopic secretions after an infected individual sneezes. The illness begins when the virus attaches to the lining of the throat or nose, at which time the immune system sends out white blood cells to attack the germ. Unless your body has encountered the exact strain of this virus, the initial attack fails and your body sends more white blood cells to fight off the virus (causing your nose and throat to get inflamed and produce mucus).

Since there are no known cures for colds and the flu, preventing these illnesses is the primary goal in combating them. Following the prevention tips in the table below will help to keep you in the gym without the sniffles.

Cold Weather and Viruses

1) When the weather is cold outside, people tend to spend more time indoors. This makes it easier for viruses to spread from one person to another.

2) The fall and winter months usually go hand in hand with a lower relative humidity. The most common cold/flu viruses survive better when the humidity is low, which is during the colder months.

3) Cold weather may make the inside lining of your nose drier and more vulnerable to viral infection. If you’re going to cover anything when going out in cold weather, it’s perhaps best to cover your nose/mouth.

4) Lack of sunlight helps the common cold/flu viruses survive longer. The fall/winter months typically have less sunlight than the spring/summer months in North America.

Preventing the Cold + Flu

1) Drink water Water flushes your system, helping you stay hydrated and healthy. Aim for at least 64 ounces of water per day.

2) Avoid touching your face The cold and flu viruses easily enter through the mucous membranes of your body such as the eyes, nose or mouth.

3) Exercise Exercise (especially aerobic exercise) increases your heart rate, rate of breathing, and core body temperature. Collectively, this can help boost the white blood cell count of your body (white blood cells fight off infections).

4) Wash your hands Most cold and flu viruses are spread by direct contact such as through a handshake or by sneezing into your hand and then touching an object, and thus infecting it.

5) Eat your veggies Foods that come from plants (especially dark green, red and yellow veggies) are rich in antioxidants that can help boost your immune system.

6) Minimize alcohol Alcohol has been shown to suppress your immune system. Additionally, alcohol can dehydrate your body.

7) Don’t overtrain While exercise is good, it can be too much of a good thing. Ensure you incorporate adequate recovery, rest and relaxation into your training program to keep your immune system strong.

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