Turns out: You can! Here are a few tips for keeping your immune system strong.
Some gym rats have ignored the conventional wisdom that exercising too much, too hard can have a detrimental effect on the immune system. (At least, the gym rats who concede that too-much-too-hard even exists.) The idea is that a tough workout creates an “open window” during which your body’s normal immune response, frayed from the stress you just put it through, is temporarily weakened, and unless you take the time to recover before the next session, that window stays open even longer. We all love our carefully-planned gym schedules, sure, but if you find yourself working out while sick, taking a swig of DayQuil before heading out the door and grimly blowing your nose in between heavy sets of deadlifts, at some point you have to ask: When is enough enough?
A team of researchers in Australia did your homework for you and have some science-based tips for perhaps sparing you from this hellacious, Kleenex-ridden cycle. The good news is that one of the most effective methods of strengthening the immune system is surprisingly simple, and one with which you are probably already very familiar: carbohydrates! Yes, downing carbs while exercising or immediately beforehand helps take the edge off some of the negative immune system responses associated with workouts, and is especially effective at fighting the overtraining symptoms that sometimes manifest in people who work out too many days in a row. There still isn’t definitive link between chugging your sports drink of choice and preventing illness—a lot more than immune system robustness goes into whether somebody actually gets sick, of course—but still, with this year’s unshakable cold coming and going and coming all over again for many people, it’s certainly worth keeping in mind next time you pack your gym bag.
Other tweaks to your diet can help, too. A high-protein regimen helps to regulate immune system functionality and may even play a role in avoiding those dreaded upper respiratory infections. Consuming a carbohydrate-protein solution (read: protein shake) immediately after exercise helps, too, so if you’re not already in the habit of replenishing once your workout is over, this is another good reason to start. The researchers are a little less bullish, though, on antioxidant supplements like quercetin. While some studies link antioxidant supplements and immune health, the authors conclude that a natural diet rich in fruits, veggies, whole grains, and nuts probably provides the antioxidants your body needs. Save that money for some dope gym gear instead.
Lastly, if you really can’t bring yourself to skip CrossFit, at least consider taking it a little easer than you otherwise would. Shorter bouts of moderate-intensity exercise—going at 50 percent instead of 80 percent—actually have little effect on certain immune system functions or, in some cases, actually enhance them a little bit. Working out while sick is never fun, and although the most obvious method of boosting your depleted immune system is still rest and relaxation, switching up the intensity and duration of your workouts could be what your body needs to finally get right. (I know. Just until you feel better and get back to normal, though. This won’t last long. I promise.)