Does it seem like every time you try to start a new exercise routine you get sick and end up having to start all over again? You’re not alone and this is an actual thing – it’s not just your body betraying you, though it may seem like it.

So let’s look at what’s going on when this happens and the steps you can take to stop it from happening to you next time.

Stress on Your Body

While exercise is really good for your body, it’s important to remember that it is also a stressor on your body, especially if it’s different or more vigorous than you’re used to. That stress on your body can temporarily run down your immune system, making you more susceptible to germs and viruses. It’s similar to how your immune system can get run down if you’re lacking in sleep for too long. One way of thinking of it is that your body only has so many resources to allocate. If it needs to move more of them to exertion and healing/recovery from a workout, there are less resources to allocate to your immune system. So if you combine a new, intense workout routine with lack of sleep or exposure to a lot of pathogens, then something has to give and sometimes it’s in the immune system department.

Gyms are a Germ Pit

I’m not being dramatic- they are a germ pit. Unfortunately, civilized human beings who actually thoroughly wipe down the equipment they use when they’re done are few and far between, so you’re sharing whatever they left on the treadmill before you. Free weights in particular are the dirtiest piece of gym equipment. In fact, one study found that free weights contain more than 300 times the germs found on a toilet seat. Sorry, but you needed to know. It makes sense when you think about it – how many times have you seen someone actually wipe down the weights before they re-rack them? Exactly. Never.

Your fitness classes are also guilty of being germy places. Yoga mats in particular are fantastic incubators for a number of infection-causing bacteria. And, just as at the gym, you can’t count on your neighbor wiping down her equipment as diligently as you do.

Add to this germy mix a rundown immune system and you have a perfect equation for a fitness de-railing illness.

Getting Enough Rest

For many of us, early mornings are the only times we can fit a workout into our busy schedules. Getting enough sleep is critical to all the basic functions of your body, including your immune system and healing. If you are just starting out with a 4 or 5 am alarm to get your workout in, that adjustment period can make you more vulnerable to getting sick if your body is accustomed to getting more sleep and, therefore, more time to recover and rebuild. Making sure that you are getting enough sleep each night when you begin cutting into that morning snooze, is important.

So what can you do to end the vicious exercise-sickness-exercise cycle?

Tips for Keeping Healthy

  • Wipe down your equipment BEFORE and after use.
  • Avoid touching your face until you’ve washed your hands thoroughly.
  • Bring your own towel – some gyms transport their dirty and clean towels in the same bin, thereby recontaminating the clean towels with bacteria.
  • Try to make sure you wipe your face with the side of the towel that hasn’t touched the equipment – you can do this by putting a mark on one side of your towel or using a towel that has a pattern on one side.
  • Ease into your new workouts instead of running headlong in so it’s less of a strain on your body. You can do this by taking more modifications in your first class or starting your runs shorter or at a slower pace, for example.
  • Do what you can to support your immune system – drink lots of water, take your vitamins, get enough rest, and eat lots of fruits and veggies for those phytonutrients.
  • Make sure you are fueling your body. Eat healthful, whole foods rather than overprocessed, prepackaged foods lacking in nutrition. I like to say “eat the rainbow” – the more different, vibrant colors you’re consuming in fresh fruit and vegetables, the greater the variety and concentration of nutrients you’re getting.

My Routine

I’m a fairly fit person, but I’ve dealt with the struggle of starting a new exercise regimen and getting sick immediately many times. Most recently, I tried a new HIIT class which is very different from what I’m used to and I got majorly sick within a couple days. So I have developed a new routine to avoid that.

Hydration. Not only do I make sure to drink water while I’m working out, I make sure to refill my water bottle before I leave and continue to drink it on my way home with the goal of replenishing fluids and then some.

Hand Washing. I try to be mindful about not touching my face during my workout and I wash my hands in the locker room before I leave. I also wash them again when I get home even if I’m going to shower right away (Confession: I usually eat before showering #priorities).

Immune System Support: I’m a dedicated vitamin-taker.

Rest. I’m an early to bed person. I have always needed a lot of sleep and that hasn’t changed with age so I listen to my body for bedtime.

Restore. I don’t go right back to it the next day. I give my body a break by doing something lighter that will still get my blood pumping, like a long walk or yoga. Then I’m giving my body some chance to recuperate while stimulating the lining of my blood vessels, the endothelium, which releases its own natural “medicine” to help me continue to recover.

Once you’ve gotten over this hurdle, be sure to check out my tips for keeping yourself motivated to workout so you can keep up the good work!

3 thoughts on “Why Do I Get Sick When I Start a New Workout Routine?

  1. Yeah that’s true.I often change routines every 3-4 months and whenever I do so, the level of soreness and tiredness I feel after the new workout is much more higher than usual and I agree with what you said- when your body undertakes new kinds of pressure and tension, it takes time to ”adjust” itself with that.

  2. And for those of us that get sick, but don’t workout at a gym? I’ve tried to start getting back into shape several times now and just end up being too sick to stick to the program within the first few days.
    They’re not intensive programs and I do take a rest day in between workout days.

    1. That is a really great question and I thank you for asking it! A number of things could be going on and, without knowing you and your specific routine and situation, it’s hard to say; however, here are a couple possibilities. If you already have a high-stress life (demanding career, busy schedule, personal or financial stress), even adding a less intensive new workout routine could be what pushes your immune system to that point where you are more susceptible to germs, viruses, etc., especially if you take public transportation frequently or are frequently in environments where you come into contact with a lot of germs, like hospitals or schools. Even moderate exercise is a stressor on your body. Another question I would have is what is going on with your diet at the time that you’re starting these new routines as that can play a role as well. For a lot of people, a new exercise routine comes with a decrease in calories and it’s important that you are fueling your body sufficiently and with high-quality foods rather than pre-packaged “diet” foods.

      While your programs are not “intensive,” as you put it, it may be beneficial to scale them back even more to start out with (even if you don’t feel challenged) and gradually increase the intensity over time to give your body and your immune system time to adjust. You may also want to talk to your physician about supplements that could be helpful as well.

      I hope that was helpful! Best of luck!

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