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A Trainer's Perspective: How to Stay Healthy Through Flu Season

By Mike Clausen

We are getting closer to winter, and that means flu season. This year, we have the added worry of the H1N1 virus, with vaccines not yet in wide supply. While sometimes you cannot avoid catching these viruses, given all the people you come into contact with in the workplace, subway, or the gym—you can prepare your body to be at its best to fight off as many viruses as possible, and at least have a shorter ill period if you do catch something. I've got some tips for maintaining your immune system through the flu season, as part of my larger interest in thinking holistically about health and fitness. These tips are supplements to, rather than replacements for, the CDC's flu prevention strategies, and are particularly from a trainer's perspective.  

  1. Don't work out when you are sick. Each year I have to send out an email warning my clients not to step foot in this gym if they are feeling the least bit sick—for my own well-being and for theirs. It will do no good to workout with a compromised immune system. That only extends the time of the illness. When you are sick, your body is fighting hard to heal and get rid of the virus. Working out (and especially cardio) will cause your body to further break down. This is when you need to take a step back and relax.  My clients often are so concerned with getting bigger or losing weight that they fail to see that by pushing themselves so hard, even when they are sick, they are only delaying their muscle gains/fat loss. And that's besides the fact that contagion spreads through gyms, not only from the equipment, but sometimes from the trainer if my clients make me sick! That can become a vicious cycle throughout the gym—so really, stay home and rest up.
  3. Eat well, even if you don't want to. By eating whole, nutritious foods, you are aiding your body in keeping your immune system vital. When we eat bad food, our bodies perform badly. So does our immune system. When we ingest food that is not really meant for consumption (i.e. the white devils: flour, sugar, milk and processed foods) our body has to work harder to break them down. This causes a weakness in our immune system and makes us more susceptible to illness. The best way to avoid this is to eat organic (if possible) vegetables, fruits, meats and whole grains. Every day I drink a Kombucha Tea (fermented chinese tea). Kombucha has live cultures which aid in digestion and immune system function. You can find this at your local Whole Foods or a health food store.  It is an acquired taste (tip: there are many differerent flavors), but it has many benefical qualities, and increasing your immune function and vitality is one of them. While an immune boosting tea may help you keep healthy, you should try to avoid most of the supplements you find in the Max Muscles and GNC's.  Supplements such as No-Explode and others like it are more a hindrance to your immune system than a help.  They may temporarily give you more "energy," but you have to ask yourself why you need the energy in the first place, If you are run-down and needing nutrients to boost your immune system, these kinds of supplements will do nothing to rectify the situation. And, by introducing sugars and chemicals to your body, they decrease your immune and digestive systems' ability to perform at their optimal levels.   
  5. Get plenty of rest. Sleep is one of the most important aspects when it comes to recovery. A lack of sleep causes a decrease in your productivity and can lead to injury and illness.  We should get about eight to 10 hours of sleep each night. Your body depends on this. Also, if you have the luxury, afternoon naps can be extremely beneficial. Some benefits of sleep are:  increased blood supply to muscles, lowered metabolic rate (optimal for tissue repair), and a peak of growth hormone secretion during deep sleep.  Also, sleeping improves your overall immune function.  To help you get the proper rest you need, you need to make sleep a priority. You should try to go to bed at the same time every night (anywhere from 10 to 11 o'clock) and stick to it. Avoid caffeinated drinks and alcohol from about four to five hours before your bedtime. These drinks both impair your sleep quality and your ability to enter REM or deep sleep. The goal is to wake up rested and healthy.
  7. Listen to your body. This one is easy. Think of all the times that you go into the gym, and I here again? We all tend to overdo it. You don't have to workout six days a week. Since we are always bombarded with pictures of hot shirtless guys, I think that as gay men we feel that we have to be in the gym every single day after work and on the weekends. This is definitely not true. Resting your body is just as important as the lifting you are doing. On the days when you just don't have it—you just shouldn't go. You are going to end up having a lousy workout, and feel miserable while you're there. Missing a day or two or even a week will not diminish your gains. If you have been lifitng for a long time and are eating right, you will see no difference if you take a break. We all have to get out of the mindset that more is better, when in fact, better is better.  Rest and recovery are equally if not more important when it comes to muscle gains as the heavy lifting.
So listen up, guys. Your mother told you, and it still is true. Eat right, get plenty of sleep, and listen to your body. Let's all get through flu season together. 

About Mike Clausen: Clausen is the founder and co-owner of DIAKADI Body training gym, voted best personal training gym in San Francisco by CitySearch in 2006. He has been actively involved in sports and weightlifting since high school, and continues to use that knowledge when training his clients. Clausen is both A.C.E. and N.A.S.M. certified and has been training clients professionally for six years. He enjoys making his clients stronger, both physically and mentally, giving them the tools to create an efficient body and to do things they thought were not possible.