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Some physical activity when you're sick may be alright, but at other times it's best to hit the bed rather than the gym.
By MSNBC contributor
updated 1/4/2006 2:56:18 PM ET 2006-01-04T19:56:18

Should you work out when you have a cold? What can you do when you hate the music at the gym? And when is the optimal time to hire a trainer? Smart Fitness answers your queries. Have an exercise question? To e-mail us, click here . We’ll post select answers in future columns.

Q: Is it OK to exercise when you have a cold?
Q: How soon can I safely exercise after a bad bout of the flu?

A: Cold and flu season is here, but it doesn't have to wreak total havoc on your fitness status.

Most people who come down with a cold should be able to continue exercising — as long as they're up for it, says Dr. Norman Edelman, chief medical officer for the American Lung Association.

"I don't know of any evidence that exercising during a cold is bad for you," he says.

Still, a stuffy head and the Stairmaster may not mix very well. "It may be harder to breathe," Edelman explains.

That may be particularly true for people with asthma. The common cold can inflame the airways, and when people with asthma exercise they may experience chest tightening. Exercising outdoors in the winter cold can further exacerbate the problem.

With the flu, it may be hard to think about exercising when you're aching and feverish. So it's best to rest and recuperate, experts say.

"You're not going to feel like exercising with the flu," Edelman says. "You're going to feel like crawling into bed."

As for how long to wait before hitting the gym again, Edelman recommends avoiding anything too strenuous for at least a week after the flu is gone. You may have to start slowly when you begin exercising again, but a couple of weeks off isn't enough to undo all the hard work you've done to get in shape.

As a general rule, the American College of Sports Medicine says, if your symptoms are from the neck up (e.g. sniffles, sneezing), it's OK to exercise, although mild to moderate activity such as walking is best. If the illness is systemic, as with the flu, it's best to take it easy.

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The bottom line, says Edelman: "Follow your body." If you're sick with the cold or flu and you don't feel like doing anything more than surfing the channels from your couch, go ahead — without the guilt.

Q: I have a problem with gyms playing rap music. What can I do? Help!

A: You're fed up with 50 Cent but the guy on the treadmill next to you is in a workout groove. Gyms can't please everyone all the time. But it can't hurt to ask the management whether they'd consider swapping rap for metal or classic rock or classical — whatever music is more your speed — at certain times of the week.

Some gyms program their music to the clientele they expect at specific hours of the day. For instance, they may play oldies during late-morning hours when the morning workout rush is over and retirees come to exercise.

If that doesn't work, you could always wear a headset and listen to the music of your choosing. Or you could look for a gym that isn't so loud.

Q: Which is better for a novice joining a gym: working with a personal trainer immediately or working out for a few weeks alone and then hiring a personal trainer?

A: It sounds like you would benefit from starting with a personal trainer who can show you the ropes and devise a workout plan that's safe for you.

If you've never been to a gym, you probably don't know much about exercise equipment and you could get injured if you use the machines incorrectly. A qualified trainer can demonstrate how the equipment works and what the safe training levels are for beginners.

Experienced exercisers may hire personal trainers periodically to evaluate their fitness routines or kick them up a notch. Then the clients may work out on their own for awhile and possibly consult a trainer again at a later date.

But true novices would benefit from basic fitness instruction. Your gym may even provide a couple of free sessions with a trainer to get you started.

Smart Fitness appears every other Tuesday.

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