How Exercise Can Help (and Hurt) You During Flu Season

Written by Rachel Debling    Photo by Lucky Business/

That familiar nip in the air can only mean two things: pumpkin spice everything, and cold and flu season. When sickness hits, it can make even the most ardent exerciser change her tune, opting to lie in bed with instant noodles with the same gusto she had in the gym the day before.

Tempting as it may be to succumb to the bug and hole yourself up in your room, health expert Brent Bishop, a trainer with the Evolve Functional Fitness virtual training platform (and rep for the Canadian vitamin brand Jamieson), stresses that the same health tenets you abide by most of the year pay off even more when the weather starts to get chillier. As your immune system comes under attack, clocking enough hours of sleep each night, chowing down on certain foods, and performing the right type and intensity of exercise can help your body fight off the microscopic enemies trying to lay claim to your health. Here, we share Brent’s expert advice for staying fit as a fiddle this flu season.

Move More? Maybe Not.

While you know that your immune system is fortified in the long run by working out regularly, there are instances when it can be further worn down by intense exercise. “That’s why [many] marathoners, for example, get sick a few days after running a race,” Bishop points out. Still, he believes the good far outweighs the bad. “People do use a cold as an excuse not to work out—but it doesn’t have to be that way,” he says. “As a matter of fact, a lot of people feel better after working out.”

So how do you know if you should get moving or stay in bed? It turns out that the old rule of thumb—“below the head, stay in bed”—is pretty sound, according to Bishop. If you’ve got pains and tightness below the neck like coughing and wheezing, you’d be best to take a rest day or two. But if you have normal signs of what many refer to as a head cold (sore throat, sinus congestion), Bishop says you’re probably okay to get in some light movement. “It’s all about less intensity, less duration,” he says. The only exception is a fever, another sign that you need to take it easy.

Stop Sickness at the Source

Even if you are adamant about wiping down benches and equipment after you’ve left your sweaty imprint, there are plenty of other places in which germs can hide. “Things that have the most germs are dumbbell handles and barbell handles. Benches are usually less of an issue because there is a layer of clothes between you and the surface,” Bishop explains, adding that weight plates are also forgotten breeding grounds of bacteria. In addition to wiping every surface before and after you use it, Bishop suggests carrying a small bottle of hand sanitizer (many now come with clips that can easily attach to your keys or belt) and wearing weightlifting gloves to add another barrier between yourself and germs.

Fuel Up

Bishop is an advocate of the healing power of foods, both before and during cold and flu season. Herbs like echinacea and ginger, for example, whether in pill form or fresh, have long been believed to help your body fight against unwanted invaders. And don’t discount the power of the most popular immune booster of the modern era, vitamin C. Believe it or not, citrus fruits aren’t the only—or even the best—source of this nutrient that the grocery store has to offer: broccoli, Bishop points out, actually has more vitamin C per serving than oranges or lemons.

Supplements can also help you get to the 1,000- to 2,000-mg dose of vitamin C that Bishop recommends striving for. All-in-one formulas (such as Jamieson’s Cold Fighter Chewable) make it easy to get ginger, zinc, echinacea, and vitamin C every day for consistent therapy. Plus, “It’s never too late to start taking it,” he notes.

For more on staying healthy this season, check out
6 Winter Foods That Boost Your Health.
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