Isometric Exercise for Illness

Should you train when you're sick

By Paul "Batman" O'Brien 

B.A., N.C.E.H.S., Dip. Acu., Cert Clin. IMed., Dip. Adv. OBB, Dip. CHM, Pn1, PN-SSR, PN-NCA, M.AFPA., M.C.Th.A.

Isometric Exercise for Illness is a good idea. The right kind of exercise at the right time can in fact enhance your immune system, clear colds and flu's and get you back on track to being your awesome self faster than a flu shot! 

We've all been there....just hit stride with your new workout routine and then BAM - you'd laid out by illness. This happens to everyone at some point - and funnily enough happens frequently due to rapid weight loss - that's right, getting results can inadvertently make you ill. I'll explain exactly why that is in a moment, and then I'll share with you the exercises you can and cannot do when you are ill.

It's no secret, I enjoy spectacular health. This is because I train right (Isometrics), eat right (a Traditional Chinese Medical and anti-inflammatory diet) and take my herbs and do my acupressure points. I honestly couldn't remember the last time I was ever sick - certainly not once in the last 10+ years...but then, only a few days ago I got put down...HARD.  I think I broke the snot-meter with a full blown case of MAN-FLU. Pick a symptom, I had it....sneezing, harsh cough spitting up blood, wheezing, sweating, fever, bloodshot mucus filled eyes, vomiting, body aches, headache, migraine, photosensitivity, nosebleeds...all of it.  Wow...I had completely forgotten what it's like to be unwell. I would like to go back to forgetting that ASAP. 

The Real Reason for Illness

So how did I, with a bullet proof immune system, get sick - simple, I let my guard down. I had just gotten back from 28 degree heat to -2, didn't wear me scarf (a TCM no-no), was coughed on in martial arts class while doing a lot of deep breathing in damp gear, then was caught in my a torrential downpour while on the motorbike. That right there is a receipe for illness. But worst of all - at that first sign of threat, rather than immediately acting with acupressure, herbs and food, I ignored it and worked a 19 hour day. Stupid move. 

I got sick. And boy was I sick. Orla hadn't seen my like that before - ever. 

And this while bad - is common for most. In fact, upper respiratory tract invaders such as cold's, flu's (influenza), coughs, sinusitis, tonsillitis, throat infections, and middle ear infections are the most common illnesses human's face.

From both a Western Medical and Eastern Medical point of view the battleground where we fight these illnesses is the same, the mouth and nose, our lungs digestive system and the urinary tract. From a Western Medical point of view we fight these illnesses through both a innate (natural) and acquired (adaptive) immune response system. In TCM we refer to this as the Wei Qi.  Some of the innate structures are physical, like our mucus, chemical, like stomach acid and protective cells. 

The adaptive is a more complex system made up of T and B cells, which are specialized white blood cells that mature in the thymus and bone marrow, respectively and can learn and remember defences to specific attacks.  This is why adults don't get as sick as frequently as children - the adult adaptive immune system has fought certain diseases as a child and remembers how to defend the body against them, so you don't get sick nearly as often. This is also why vaccination (a small dead sample of a disease is shown to the body so it can formulate a response) works. 

Isometric Exercise for Illness

Now illness moves through a certain timeline in terms of the expression of symptoms and this dictates our exercises response. 

It certainly isn't appropriate to on waking snot-nosed, groggy, coughing and spluttering to head down to the gym for a 15 HIIT sprint session followed by a heavy weight super intense Dragon Strength Routine (DSR) or even to do an intense Perfect Body Isometric session! 

Exercise is stressful, and the higher the intensity the higher the stress load. It is precisely our body's adaptation to that stress that sees up get bigger and stronger hearts, lungs and muscles. Placing that type of load and stress on yourself while in a compromised ill state is a disastrous idea.  

What we have to do is work with the body to support its process. This is the tactic that makes TCM treatments of cold and flu's so successful...and we should apply the same principle to Isometric Exercise for Illness. As such I keep ALL  Isometric exercise contractions BELOW 60%. How do you judge what 60% is? This is my simple rule of thumb. I keep the tension below the point where the muscle shakes or quivers. The muscle should feel warm and used, but not fatigued in any way. 

Additionally I do more of the less intense types of exercise - I d a little more Yoga and spinal mobilisation. I walk, ideally out in the fresh air (though wrapped up warm), and practice Qi Gong, Tai Chi and of course Iai movements - just at a very low intensity. 

I absolutely avoid Heavy Strength training and Isometric Exercise, no sprint training or DFR's, endurance or HIIT training of any kind. Now there are many other factors; stress, age, training history, sex, mood, location etc all of which play a role in your recovery and ability to train. However I would recommend doing something light to, as the Chinese say, "move Qi and Blood". 

With that in mind here's the time scale I recommend with my patients - 

Isometric Exercise for Illness - Sick Day 1:

If you have symptoms like a sore throat, coughing, runny nose, congested nose, ONLY do light sub 60% isometric exercise and other low intensity exercise like a walk or yoga.

If you are experiencing muscle/joint pain, headache, fever, malaise, diarrhoea, vomiting - NO EXERCISE at all! Get to your doctor.

Isometric Exercise for Illness - Sick Day 2:

Do you have a body temperature greater than 37.5-38 C, or you exhibit increased coughing, diarrhoea or vomiting, no exercise of any kind for you.

However, if you don't have an elevated temperature and your head cold symptoms haven't gotten worse then you can do light exercise (keeping your pulse under 120 bpm) for 30-45 minutes, on your own, and if it's winter out there, do it indoors.

Isometric Exercise for Illness - Sick Day 3:

If you still have an elevated temperature and symptoms get thee to your doctor ASAP.

By contrast, if the temperature is down, and the initial symptoms haven't gotten worse, you can move up to moderate exercise (pulse <150 bpm) for about 45-60 min, but keep yourself to yourself and train indoors.

Isometric Exercise for Illness - Sick Day 4:

No symptom relief, no exercise. If you haven't been yet, really, go to the doctor.

On the other hand, if the fever and other symptoms have improved, give yourself another 24 hours then return to exercise.

Any new symptoms show up - get to the doctor.

Now, keep in mind some illnesses can indicate serious infections. If you aren’t feeling better and recovering you really need to see your doctor.

One final thing, don't jump straight back into high intense training. You need to ease back into exercise. I recommend that you recovery in proportion to the length of your illness. If you were sick for 4 days take 4 days to ease back in to your training schedule. 

Of course, along with Isometric Exercise for Illness my patients are also doing acupuncture, eating a TCM based diet, doing their pressure point s and drinking herbal teas so their recovery, like mine, is VERY fast. (If you want more info on that I actually have a FREE cold and flu guide with my soup and tea recipes and some key pressure points.  You can download it here). 

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