Dealing with sickness: Should you exercise when sick? And what should you eat?

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If you’ve been exercising regularly, eating well and been consistently losing weight without dieting, getting sick may feel like a spanner in the works and probably poses many questions.

Should I exercise when sick? And if so, how hard should I go?

What should I eat if I’m sick?

And how do I make sure I don’t put on any weight?

If you’ve ever wondered what to do when you get sick, read on for all the answers.

But first, let’s do a quick dive into our immune system so we can understand why we get sick, what our body’s response to illness is, and what’s the best thing to do when we get sick.

Our immune system

Our immune system is a complex system designed to protect our body against pathogens, such as bacteria, viruses, parasites and fungi — in order to keep us healthy.

Our immune system is made up of special organs, cells and chemicals that fight infection. When our body is exposed to a pathogen, certain white blood cells called B- and T-lymphocytes are triggered to produce antibodies (also called immunoglobins) to fight that pathogen. This is part of the immune response.

These lymphocytes are also ‘memory cells’ which means our immune system is able to ‘remember’ every microbe (microscopic organism) that it has ever defeated. If the same microbe enters our body again, our immune system recognises and destroys it quickly, before it can multiply and make us sick. This is what’s called ‘building immunity’ and explains why adults have a higher immunity than young children. Vaccinations work on this principle by introducing weakened pathogens into our system, in a way that we don’t become sick, but produce the necessary antibodies in order to fight these pathogens, should we become exposed to them later in life.

Why we get sick

Unfortunately, our immune system is not foolproof and sometimes it doesn’t work as it should, making us more susceptible to illness. Some people are born with conditions that cause a weakened immune system and some may contract diseases that weaken their immune system.

However, there are other things that can weaken our immune system including smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, poor nutrition, lack of sleep, stress and some medications. This explains why people often get sick after stressful situations. While stress certainly plays a part, it often increases the likelihood of poor eating, increased drinking, and lack of sleep.

Now we know how our immune system works and why we get sick, it’s time to look at what we should do when we’re ill.

Should you exercise when sick?

Yes and no.

Let’s be clear — moving your body and training are two different things. When we train (i.e. perform a structured workout), we place a small amount of stress on our body, which is designed to help us build muscle, burn fat or increase our fitness. When we’re healthy, our body is able to handle this stress. In fact, it’s the adaptation to this stress that makes us stronger and helps us change our body.

Small amounts of stress can also help boost our immunity by limiting inflammation. However, prolonged stress, or too much stress can open the door to more inflammation. It also decreases our body’s lymphocytes (remember those white blood cells that help fight infection?) which can depress our immune system and make us more susceptible to illness.

There are some who subscribe to the belief that you can ‘sweat out’ an illness, by doing a strenuous workout. However, doing so only places added stress on an already stressed immune system, which is a recipe for disaster. Training when you’re sick can increase your chances of sustaining an injury, or getting sicker, which will mean you’re sidelined for longer. Or, training while you’re still recovering may deplete your immune system even further, increasing the likelihood of getting sick again. This will mean more time off your training, and less consistency with your training.

That’s not to say that movement is off the table! Non-strenuous movement that doesn’t place huge stress on your immune system will actually benefit you and help you recover faster, because it helps boost the immune system! Examples of these activities include gentle walking (preferably outside), low intensity cycling, gardening or even gentle stretching.

However, at the end of the day, it’s important to listen to your body. If you are extremely fatigued, or recovering from an illness like gastro, which depletes your energy levels considerably due to the fact that you haven’t been able to eat, then it may be better to rest or get more sleep.

To discover why rest is important, read our blog The power of rest: Why resting isn’t lazy.

What’s the best food to eat when you’re sick?

So now you know about exercise, what about eating? Surely there’s certain foods that will help you recover?

Once again, yes and no.

A lot of people believe that there are good foods and bad foods — that one type of food is better than another, but this isn’t true. There are just foods that serve different purposes. To fully understand what this means, read our blog What are good foods for weight loss and what are bad foods?.

The first rule about eating when we’re sick is not to follow any rules at all! Food rules don’t work at the best of times and they certainly won’t work when we’re sick. As we mentioned above, food serves different purposes so it’s important to understand why we’re eating when we’re sick.

Is it to replenish energy? Is it to fight sickness? Is it to soothe a sore throat?

What we eat will depend upon the cause of our sickness and the purpose behind our eating.

For example, if you’re recovering from gastro, you’re likely to want to ease back into eating, starting with bland foods that are easy to digest. Best choices are things like toast, crackers, rice and bananas while avoiding milk and dairy, alcohol, caffeine, and foods high in fat, fibre and spices.

If you’re sick with a cold or virus, then you’ll probably want to eat foods that are warming and comforting like chicken soup or broth, or spicy foods that help break up mucus and clear out the nasal passages. If you have a sore throat that makes it painful to swallow, probably prefer to avoid scratchy foods like toast and crackers, and eat softer foods like yoghurt, jelly, stewed fruit or even honey and lemon drinks.

As you can see, a type of food that may be a great choice for one type of illness, may not be the best choice for another. That’s why it’s important to listen to your body and know what purpose your food needs to serve.

But are some foods better nutritionally?

If you’re not having trouble eating try to focus on foods that have high nutritional value. As a general rule of thumb, foods that are unprocessed, and have lots of colour contain the most nutrients and will help you fight illness. Avoid foods that are processed, high in fat and sugar and low in nutrition. And don’t forget to stay hydrated.

Some good choices include:

  • Soups and broths — these can be easy to eat, help hydrate you and contain lots of nutrition
  • Garlic —can help fight bacteria, viruses and stimulate your immune system
  • Ginger – can help relieve nausea and has anti-inflammatory properties
  • Honey – has antibacterial effects and stimulates the immune system
  • Tea – will help hydrate you and can be combined with honey and ginger for a soothing, healthy drink
  • Bananas – these are high in energy and nutrients and can be easy to eat
  • Cooked oats – easy to eat, a source of protein and high in nutrients
  • Salmon – an excellent source of protein, contains healthy fats that can reduce inflammation, and is soft and easy to digest
  • Yoghurt – contains calcium, protein, vitamins and minerals and some are fortified with probiotics to help you recover
  • Stewed fruit – can be eaten hot or cold, is high in nutrition, easy to eat and digest, and may help provide energy
  • Avocados – full of vitamins, minerals and healthy fats for reduced inflammation, plus they stimulate the immune system
  • Green leafy veggies – full of nutrients and can be blended into a smoothie for an added boost.

Remember, the important thing is to eat what you can when you can and not to worry about calories, dieting or food rules. Avoiding certain foods because they don’t fit into a diet plan may be tempting but doing so may mean that you don’t recover from your illness as quickly. This will mean you’ll be sicker for longer, or you’ll be more susceptible to getting sick with something else. This will lead to even more time off, and the longer you’re out of action, the less consistent your weight loss efforts will be. Don’t forget that consistency is what gets results more than anything else.

How to avoid getting sick

Of course, prevention is better than cure and it would be preferable not to get sick at all. The good news is that you can boost your immune system and reduce your chances of getting sick to start with. We wrote an entire blog about How to boost your immune system, so be sure to read it to find out how. Some of the points may surprise you!

The bottom line is that everyone will get sick at some point. The key in getting back to normal as quickly as possible, is giving yourself time to recover without feeling guilty about it, or trying to rush the process.

We understand, however, that a lot of people view being sick as a sign of weakness, and so they try to push through and soldier on. This is common for high achievers and people who have habits around perfectionism, diet mindset, or those who feel guilty about putting themselves first.

But that’s where we can help.

Through our Diet Antidote Transformation System (DATS™️) we help you see things from a different perspective and address the habits that lead to you feel guilty about getting sick or resting when you’re not well.

Our program will also show you how to boost your immune system so you can start living more and being sick less. Through specific, personalised action steps we can help you break free from the behaviours that contribute to a poor immune system, so you can be more consistent with your weight loss efforts, and reach the goals you’ve set.

DATSTM will give you the knowledge, systems, tools and skills to help you deal with any situation, including illness, so you can continue to lose weight, without giving up when it gets hard.

If you’re ready to enjoy better health, we’re ready to help.


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