Exercise Safely During Flu Season

By the time you read this, let’s hope that the intense 2017-2018 flu season is on the way out or gone entirely. As we write these words in mid-January, though, things still don’t look good. This season’s flu is more widespread than any of the last dozen years. News reports continue to highlight shocking flu-related deaths. The latest vaccine is less effective than hoped. Scientists recently reported a discovery that the flu might be transmitted simply by breathing — making it much more contagious than previously thought.

So we’ve been taking all the precautions we can. We’re washing our hands obsessively. We’re covering our mouths and avoiding people who cough or sneeze. We got our vaccinations in October — and if we didn’t, it’s still not too late as long as the flu is out there!

Also, we’re eyeing the gym with suspicion.

It’s a shame, really. The height of flu season every year coincides with our New Year’s resolutions to create a perfect storm of sweaty crowds and overtouched treadmill consoles. Did that person just rub their nose and then pick up those barbells? Who else has been doing ab work on this exercise mat, and did they wipe it clean when they finished? Is it really a good idea to go elbow-to-elbow for an hour with so many people in this spin class?

The best laid fitness plans can be easily derailed by a single cough from one under-the-weather body builder. With that in mind, here are some best practices for getting through flu season while still getting in shape.

  • First, get that flu shot! The effectiveness of the vaccine varies from year to year, and this year it’s especially low, estimated at somewhere between 10 and 30%. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t bother. Those slightly better odds of avoiding (and then spreading!) the virus are important, and even if you do get the flu, having had the vaccine could lessen its impact. 
  • Be aware of how often you touch objects in your environment that might harbor germs. Doorknobs, handles on bikes, treadmills, and elliptical machines, control panels, weight machines, free weights — all of it has been touched many times by people before you, and you have no idea where those people have been. Wipe down equipment before and after you use it, and wash your hands with soap and water thoroughly and frequently. Avoid touching your face, especially your eyes, nose, and mouth. Cover your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze, then wash your hands again. Not only do we want to avoid the flu, we want to avoid spreading it to other people.
  • If you start to feel sick, two things: 1) See your doctor right away. If your doctor can diagnose the flu early (in the first day or two) an antiviral medication might be able to reduce the severity of the illness and speed your recovery. 2) Don’t go to the gym if you’re feeling ill. Don’t try to push through it. Exercise at this point is counterproductive and can lead to more serious complications. So take it easy and keep your germs to yourself.
  • As much as we love the gym, and as inspiring and motivating as those group classes can be, a crowded room at the height of flu season might seem like too much of a risk — especially now that we have to worry about not just coughers and sneezers, but breathers as well. Consider alternatives to the gym, at least until the flu and New Year’s resolution seasons are past their peak. Weather permitting, you can exercise outdoors with a good jog, bike, or walk. Or you can work out in the comfort of your own home with simple free weights, exercise tubing [ link ], or other equipment. If you need guidance or inspiration, there are countless exercise apps available, and YouTube is a good starting point for pretty much whatever you’re into, whether it’s yoga or Bodypump or line dancing.

The flu is sneaky, so it’s entirely possible that you could do everything right and still catch it. In that case, please do take care of yourself and see your doctor. If you start to feel better and then suddenly take another turn for the worse, definitely see your doctor. This could be the result of a deadly secondary infection requiring an immediate response.

The good news is that flu season will end eventually (although “eventually” could be as late as May). But keep your guard up, get your exercise in when you’re well and able, and you’ll still be healthy and ready for beach season before you know it.