As human beings, we excel at making excuses to rationalize behaviors. When it comes to the internal debate over whether or not to soldier through a workout despite feeling lousy, this could not be more true. But how do we know when it’s really best for us to take a time out, and when pushing through may actually help us feel better?
The Issue: You’re Sick
Not many people want to hit it hard at the gym when feeling under the weather, but really, only a select set of symptoms require full workout abstinence.
If your symptoms are below the neck, you aren’t being lazy: you really ought to stay home. These symptoms include fever, muscle aches and pain (not related to a workout), a heavy chest cough, or any digestive issue. These are signs that your body is fighting a more serious infection or illness and needs to route all of its energy toward fighting it.
“Above-the-neck” symptoms like sniffles and mild congestion, on the other hand, can be annoying but are not good excuses for skipping a workout altogether. Do still avoid the gym to reduce the spread of your lovely germs, and start with a lower intensity in case your balance is off or you start to feel worse. But research shows that such a low intensity workout could actually give you a slight immune boost, and even help relieve nasal congestion.
The Issue: You’re Tired
Research shows consistently that physical activity can actually help us feel more energized! If you tend to feel lethargic after a day spent number-crunching, screen-surfing, or generally vegging out, then a workout could be just what the doctor ordered.
If, however, you feel tired due to lack of sleep, for example after pulling an all-nighter to study or meet a deadline, then resting is a wise decision. Attempting to workout when sleep deprived raises your risk of injury, leads to sub-par physical performance, negatively impacts your immune system, and sets off a cascade of stress responses in the body.
Additionally, over-exercising can prove just as detrimental to our energy levels as under-exercising. If you’re the type of person who works out most days a week at a fairly high intensity, take care that you aren’t overtraining your body. Feeling more sluggish than usual during a workout, taking a longer time to recover, or feeling abnormally sore or worn out following a session are all signs that your body may need some time off. Trying to “push through” will only make it worse.
The Issue: You’re Just Not In The Mood
When it comes to actual depression, experts agree: exercise can be just as powerful as antidepressant medications, with the effects of exercise leading to even longer-lasting symptom improvement. This is largely attributed to the hormonal effect that a workout has, such as enhancing endorphins to reduce pain and bolster immunity, and stimulate norepinephrine, which may have a more direct impact on our moods. Physical activity can also help build self-esteem and create a sense of accomplishment.
Of course, it’s easy for me to sit here and advise you to hit the gym when you’re deeply entrenched in the fog of depression, and it’s far too simplistic to assume that one treatment modality is a magic bullet for a disease so nuanced and complex. Depression is best treated from all angles: food and nutrition, medication and supplements, formal and informal therapy, community support, and yes, physical activity. (As an aside, if you are feeling alone and overwhelmed by negative thoughts and emotions, please reach out to an available support line.) Though it’s hard to see at times, moving your body in some way when you’re feeling low is when it has the greatest potential for positive impact.
Now, actual depression is far from the only time when our mood influences our desire to workout. Much more general “bad days” and chronic stress can also make it tempting to skip a sweat session. I would challenge you here to find an activity that can get you up and moving, but in a way that grounds you and allows you to recharge. For some, this could be yoga, while for others it could be whaling on a punching bag.
Being fluid with your routine based on your day and mood can transform your workout from a chore into a valuable part of your day.
No matter what, listen to your body. Short of puking your brains out or having just come out of spinal surgery, I would encourage you to give some amount of activity a try. Start light, even with a simple walk. If you feel ok, keep going. If you start to feel worse, then stop.
Yes, it really is that simple.