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By Judy Fortin
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Cold and flu season is just getting under way in the United States. Before it's over, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention predicts, up to 20 percent of Americans will suffer from the flu.
Experts don't know how many professional and amateur athletes will be sidelined by the symptoms, but they do know germs are easily spread in gyms and common workout areas.
At least one expert says that if you think you're coming down with a cold or the flu you should probably skip your daily workout.
"I tell people to listen to their bodies. If they are sick, their body is telling them something is wrong." said Dr. Rick Kellerman of the American Academy of Family Physicians.
Even though it may be tempting to not break an exercise routine, working out may actually prolong the illness," Kellerman said. And, in rare cases "viruses can damage heart muscles," he added.
Kellerman said it is a myth that you can sweat out germs and toxins. He acknowledges that "low levels of exercise increase endorphins and benefit the body, but an intense workout that creates high levels of endorphins can wear down the immune system."
In other words, "Don't count on endorphins to heal you," he said.
Kellerman advises his patients to skip their workout if they have a fever. It puts too much stress on the heart, which already is beating faster because of the higher body temperature. If you're suffering from chest congestion, coughing and shortness of breath, he said, you also shouldn't work out. And exercising with a stomach ache will probably make you feel worse, he added.
But if you have the sniffles and milder symptoms of a cold, moderate exercise is probably OK, Kellerman said.
He recommends that athletes use cross-training to learn about different levels of exercise. A cross-training routine can help rebuild strength as you recover. Kellerman also suggests easing back into a full workout.
"When you're feeling better, don't start back at 100 percent," he said. "Start at a lower level. Give yourself time to recuperate [or] you might relapse or prolong the illness."
Another reason to skip the gym if you're sick is to keep from spreading the germs to everyone else.
"Be considerate," Kellerman said. "Wipe down machines, wash your hands and stay home and rest if you really don't feel well."
It's not too late to get a flu shot. The Centers for Disease and Control recommends the vaccine for pregnant women, children between the ages of 6 months and 5 years, and anyone 50 or older. The CDC says "you may be able to pass on the flu before you know you are sick, as well as while you are sick."