Many of my clients have been sick with colds or the flu lately. Should I recommend they stop training with me if they're sick, and if so, how long should I advise they wait before we start again?
Much research, including a recent study by the Academy of Sports Medicine, indicates that there is no reason to stop working out when you have a cold. The above/below the neck rule applies. If your symptoms are above the neck (i.e., sniffles, sore throat, colds, etc), it is okay to work out. However, having said that, NEVER work out with a fever as it places extra demands on virtually every system in the body. If your client has cold or flu symptoms above the neck, he may not have his usual stamina or strength during exercise, but fighting through the illness may actually shorten its duration. Carefully assess how your client is feeling as he progresses through his workout, and make sure he listens to his body. Plenty of fluids are a must, and additional recovery time is advised if your client is feeling weak or achy.
If cold or flu symptoms manifest lower in the body (i.e., nausea, vomiting, difficulty breathing), then it's recommended to take a few days off. Continuing to work out through these symptoms will probably prolong the illness. Clients should take care, specifically with stomach illness, to stay hydrated. Your client may not feel like eating, but using sports drinks and clear liquids to maintain the proper fluid intake is critical. Avoid drinks that are sweetened either by sugar or artificial agent as they may aggravate an already compromised system.
When your client does return to the gym after an illness, you need to lighten the load a bit, especially with cardio. Depending on energy and hydration levels, your client will likely be able to come back at about 80 percent of his original program. That’s a 20 percent reduction in time, intensity and weight, depending on the nature of the workout. If your client was down for an extended period of time (5-7 days), he may need to return with a day of rest between each session for the first week. Make sure your client gets a good night’s sleep during that first week after an illness. Failure to do so virtually guarantees any weakness will linger.
When sick with a cold or flu, it is important to listen to your body and drink lots of water. Also, don’t rush the healing. If an individual does not permit himself time to get well, he will likely relapse. Within two to three weeks, previous strength and stamina should return to normal levels. If your client seems to have recurring instances of illness for more than a month, he should definitely see his doctor as he may need more than water and rest to combat his cold or flu. When feeling ready for exercise again, your client should set a goal of being active for at least 15 minutes a day for 16 to 21 days straight. This will help to re-establish his workout habit and give him a jumpstart on the road back to improved fitness.