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Can I still exercise if I’m unwell?

GENTLY DOES IT: If you have something like a chest infection or flu (man or human), it’s best to only take gentle exercise.

‘Oh, it’s going around...’. Yes, it’s that time of year again, when everything from a hint of a sniffle through the nastiest man-flu to pneumonia is ‘going around’. Normally in such a conversation there is some reference to imminent death (especially in cases of man-flu).

Having barely had more than a cold in the last ten years, since turning 40 a couple of months ago I’ve had a chest infection followed by a sinus infection that have just about been beaten by two courses of antibiotics and a steroid spray. Talk about a fun reminder of the aging process.

There are general guidelines as to how much exercise is a good idea when you’re sick, but in order to follow those guidelines, it’s important to be honest about just how sick you are. There are various ways to diagnose illness, many of them truly scientific, but when it comes to winter illnesses, I tend to use the Paul O’Brien method.

My dad, who gives his name to this protocol, has a language all of his own, both in terms of vocabulary and turns of phrase. It’s no exaggeration to say that he reasonably frequently has to explain his latest saying to my mum. Mainly because most of his favourite sayings seem to come from men who perished in the Australian outback in the 1930s. Many of them are impossible to repeat – not because the phrase itself is particularly offensive, but because the origin usually is.

Anyway, according to my dad’s method there are several levels of illness, the least serious of which is being ‘a bit maggoty’. Anyone who has ever seen a sheep suffering with fly-strike knows that they don’t look great, but it’s generally not life threatening. ‘A bit of a maggot’ could be contagious, such as a cold, or self-inflicted in the form of a hangover.

Maggots, whether caught from someone else or caused by yourself, do tend to be ‘going around’ at this time of year and are often treated with hot whiskey. Much like the aforementioned sheep you mightn’t look too flash, but you’ll probably come round in a day or two.

The second level of ill-health is being ‘crook’. There are three sub-levels of crook; with ‘a bit’ at the lower end and ‘pretty bloody’ in the middle. I fear if I was to submit the name of the more severe level it would be edited out.

Being crook can refer to the flu, pneumonia, food poisoning, a recent heart attack and treatable cancers. Generally, someone who is crook can expect to make a recovery, but they will most likely need a lengthy period of recuperation and, depending on how just how crook they are, some level of medical input.

Anyone with a terminal illness is classed as being ‘pretty sick, the poor fella’. I’ve heard my dad use this phrase too often in the last couple of years as some of his contemporaries have sadly passed away. The mix of understatement and compassion are a beautiful reflection of my dad’s approach to life.

Once you have ascertained your level of illness, it’s easy to work out just how much exercise you should be getting. Anyone with a maggot should, according to my dad, just get on with things –  especially if it’s self-inflicted – but get to bed early wherever possible. Indeed, a moderately hard exercise session may well improve symptoms of a cold, although that’s not always the case with a hangover. If you are a bit crook, especially with something like a chest infection or flu, it’s best to wind it back a bit. Training should be gentle and focused on recovery rather than making big gains; a very easy run or a yoga session are safe sessions for someone who is a bit crook, whereas pushing a hard session may well exacerbate symptoms. If you are pretty bloody crook or worse, exercise is still good for you, but needs to be taken with some caution and under professional guidance.

There you have it then, the Gospel according to Paul. By the time you hear from me next, it will be 2019, and I will no doubt have some new wisdoms to pass on. In the meantime, have a happy, healthy Christmas remember to keep moving into the New Year, and don’t get too maggoty!

This post originally appeared in the Mayo News

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