Colds don’t slow exercise capability

Ira Dreyfuss

A cold may no longer be a good excuse for skipping a workout.
A researcher who deliberately sickened 45 people found that a typical head cold didn’t even slow down their exercise.
“They were working at maximal effort, beyond what they would work out for fitness purposes,” said Thomas G. Weidner of Ball State University in Muncie, Ind.
Weidner and his colleagues found 55 Ball State students who were willing to get head colds for the sake of science — and for the approximately $80 they would get for completing the study. Results were published in the American College of Sports Medicine journal, Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise.
All the students were moderately fit, so they were capable of exercising about three times a week for 30 minutes, by jogging or doing a similarly intense aerobic exercise, Weidner said.
In the study, all participants exercised on a treadmill until they were too tired to keep up the pace. Ten were set aside to serve as a control group. The other 24 men and 21 women let researchers spray rhinovirus up their noses with an atomizer. To be certain the research subjects got a good dose, more cold virus was spread in their nostrils the next day with a pipette.
Sure enough, the inoculated group got sick, reporting stuffy, runny noses, coughs and sore throats. And on the day after the second inoculation, when symptoms should be at their worst, each returned to the treadmill to see how hard he or she could work out.
The cold didn’t faze them. Their aerobic capacity was virtually the same. In fact, for some unknown reason, the group with the cold even did a little better than the group without, the report said. And despite the colds, the test subjects reported the exercise didn’t feel harder than normal, the researchers said.
Although the test exercise didn’t take as long as a good run might, the researchers believe the findings back up the idea that ordinary aerobic exercise can go forward just fine, despite a cold.
However, the researchers note some limitations in their study. The students ranged from 18 to 29, so the project did not look at how people younger and older might be affected. Also, it did not look at performance over longer exercise periods of 45 minutes or more.
More importantly, the study did not look at all types of colds. Rhinovirus colds are the most common, but they account for only 40 percent of all colds. The rest are caused by an estimated dozen other microorganisms that were not studied, Weidner said.
Also, this study involved only what are called “head colds,” which are far less dangerous than “chest colds,” Weidner said.
The findings support the idea that a head cold is no bar to a workout, Weidner said. He noted the “neck check” method of Dr. E. Randy Eichner of the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, Oklahoma City. If the symptoms are above the neck, it’s OK to exercise; if they are below, it’s time to cut back and rest.
However, not all experts agree about exercising with a cold.
It makes sense that a stuffy nose won’t interfere with exercise, said William J. Evans, director of the Noll Physiological Research Center at Penn State. Researchers commonly block the nose so they can use a face mask to measure breathing in exercisers, and this doesn’t hurt performance, he said.
On the other hand, a bad cold with a great deal of mucus may make it harder to breathe, and this could make it harder to exercise, said Dr. Douglas B. McKeag of the University of Pittsburgh.
Using the neck as a dividing line oversimplifies things, he said. Elevated temperature or breathing problems are better to focus on, and an exerciser who has them should at least cut back, he said.
Even cold viruses can cause an inflammation of the heart if they lodge there, McKeag said. In rare instances, this condition can lead to irregular heartbeat and even death.