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For about a year now I've been doing the StrongLifts 5x5 weight lifting program. It was about 6 months in that I started to have to pause occasionally while I got over a minor cold - I thought it was just a seasonal thing as winter was setting in.

After a while I'd recover, go back to the gym for a couple of weeks and the situation would repeat. Upon realising the link I'd take a prolonged break from the gym altogether and restart with a big deload (~20%) but within a month or two my immune system would weaken to the point where the process started again.

I'm currently seeking medical advice but after some initial blood tests, and a physical examination there's nothing obvious.

I think I'm being sensible when I exercise, incrementing in 2.5kg stages only after successfully lifted 5 sets of 5 reps, ensuring 48hrs between gym visits and eating extra protein after workouts, extra carbs before, and fruit and vegetables all the time. I'm not even lifting particularly heavy loads - 60kg bench, 110kg dead lift, and 80kg squats are my personal bests.

Can anyone advise on how to strengthen my immune system?

EDIT (to address comments): Sleep - I work out late when the gym is less busy, say 9-10. I get on average 8 or more hours sleep a night, never less than 7. Never had a problem sleeping. Diet - Breakfast is weetabix or other whole grain cereal and whole milk, often a mandarin or similar small orange like fruit. Lunch is usually soup and bread. Evening meal mainly meat, veg and pasta/rice/potatoes. On days where I'm working out I'll eat larger portions than usual. Days after a workout I'll eat additional chicken/tuna throughout the day i.e. as well as normal meals.

Why do I think working out is making me ill? I've gone through the same cycle too many times to realise it's not a coincidence. I wait until I'm well before returning but I'll be run down again after only a few sessions. My previous health regime was football and running and this never happened after physically demanding games.

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First, understand that stress in any form depresses your immune system. Lifting weights is a training stress, and in particular deadlifts can really push you over the edge. The goal is that when the stress is lifted and you recover you are at a stronger position. I have no idea what your current stats are with the squat, bench, deadlift, overhead press, and barbell rows. A year is a long time to be on that beginner program.

Some things to consider:

  • Perhaps it's environmental. Some place where you go regularly might be a breeding ground for colds. The training stress just makes you more susceptible.
  • Perhaps it's time to move on from StrongLifts.

Stronglifts is a beginner program, a typical run with it would be 3-6 months. A whole year running the program is probably putting more stress on your body than it can handle. Moving to a different program with a slower regular progression could help your recovery a lot. You might consider Texas Method, or Wendler 5/3/1, the Cube method, or Juggernaut 2.0.

The bottom line is that it sounds like your training is outpacing your body's ability to recover. Doing 5x5 in every lift (save the deadlift) with any appreciable weight is a tremendous amount of stress on your body. By spreading that out over a week or a month, or even longer you can really help your body recover from the training stress and stay above that threshold of getting sick.

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You aren't telling us about your diet or sleep schedule. Both these factors are important when considering illness. [This part should be a comment, but I can't comment yet]

Answer: If it is directly related to going to the gym you might want to make sure you are washing your hands thoroughly after a gym session. The gym is a great place for germs to spread.

I'm glad you got blood tests and are seeking medical advice, that is probably your best course of action.

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Many years ago I had a similar problem to this. I was a marathon runner, and was used to pushing my body hard. I had some blood tests done. Nothing showed up re iron or the normal things they test for, but the white blood count was low which meant my immune system was suppressed. I found it really hard to step back from training, but training hard just makes the situation worse, and prolongs the problem.

I would suggest reducing training significantly for a few months. And have at least one days rest between training days, also take a tonic to try and help with your recovery.

@Berin loritsch suggests changing your program which I think is a good suggestion. Also, as Berin said, do be aware that other things causing stress in your life will suppress your immune system. Good luck on your recovery

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I have been dealing with this issue for 2 years- it has been getting significantly worse over the last 6 months or so.

I used to strength train 3-4 times a week. I now get "sick" about 24-48 hours after each time I go to the gym- runny nose, headache, sore throat, body aches (not muscle related). If I don't workout or 2-3 weeks or reduce my intensity, I can work out several times in a row before I get sick again.

I've been given every blood test known to man with no abnormal results. My doctors are currently exploring sleep quality as a culprit. I am sleeping 7-8 hours a night but they say it is possible I am not entering the critical deep sleep stages that allow the body to heal. They encouraged me to correct my circadian rhythm by avoiding naps, introducing Melatonin in proper doses (3-5mg), and trying light therapy.

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Hi Iain,

Do you take multi-vitamins? If not, you need to add multi-vitamins to your daily intake. Vitamin C is especially needed for immune system boost.

Since you've already sought medical help and nothing obvious could be found, I would start with taking the multi-vitamins. Our bodies can't produce all the nutrients it needs; that's why multi-vitamins are needed. Vitamins rich in B-complex, manganese, zinc, and iron are also recommended daily.

Also, look out for things that can cause allergies. Your symptoms could be the results of allergies. You can try switching gyms, equipment, or clothings to determine if your situation is allergy-related.

You can also try other exercise programs to determine if these particular exercises are too strenuous for your body to handle.

We can't exactly tell you what the problem is, but by changing a few things and observing the results, you might be able to determine where the problem lies and then fix it.

Hope this helps.

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  • +1 for vitamins! They're dirt cheap and if you overdo them, oh well, nevermind. Better to be safe than sorry. Also goes vor mineral complexes and fish-oil. – user8119 Apr 25 '14 at 6:20
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    I'll be a dissenting voice. Current research shows that most of us get quite adequate levels of vitamins and nutrients in our current diets. Most vitamins and supplements are a matter of marketing trumping actual needs, an extension of a more primitive mindset where we were convinced that ingesting magic nostrums would make us healthier. sciencebasedmedicine.org/… – Sean Duggan Apr 25 '14 at 12:42
  • @SeanDuggan: The worst I could find in the article you linked (and others linked therein) was 'no effect whatsoever'. So is it just useless or can it actually be dangerous? If you think it can be dangerous, would you have any sources you could point me to? – user8119 Apr 25 '14 at 13:14
  • @LarissaGodzilla Dangerous? Generally not. There are supplements and vitamins that can build up to toxic levels dependent on what you're getting from environment and physiology (I, myself, have to watch how much iron I take in due to hemochromatosis), but usually, you're just literally pissing away the excess that your body flushes out of the system. To use a parallel, if you overfuel your gas tank, the fuel just washes out onto the ground. For most people, multi-vitamins are the equivalent of running the pump as the gas spills out onto the pavement, not harmful but costly. – Sean Duggan Apr 25 '14 at 13:59
  • @SeanDuggan First, the article never mentioned that we obtain adequate levels of vitamins in our current diets. If you have an article for that, produce it. Medical professionals have already said that we don't consume enough nutrients, even to vegetarians. That doesn't mean one can't do without it; it simply means that the body isn't getting enough of what it needs. Vitamins A, B-complex, C, D, E, K, iron, manganese, zinc, etc are all good for the body. If the body doesn't get enough from food, where should it get the rest? There's a chance to overfuel, but that's a separate story. – Kneel-Before-ZOD Apr 25 '14 at 14:39
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I have a friend that it is going through something similar, I have been training him long time ago and now he cannot do what he could do before with symptoms like yours, that it does not mean that you have the same, but I would rule this out, given the history of blood tests with no results, you can ask the doctor to do a different check.

Got him tested for Chronic Fatigue Syndrome or Fibromyalgia, if you experience fatigue and other flu-like symptoms every time after exercise, even if it is only mild, then this may be an indication of a more serious health concern such as Fibromyalgia or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Persistent symptoms like this should be checked by a doctor.

Try not to be frustrated with the doctor because there is no blood test for either condition and the symptom picture is extremely complex and varies from person to person. You may be asked about your emotional wellbeing, have your thyroid checked, creatinine, urea, iron levels, liver and a haematological profile taken and have to answer a great many questions about how long, how often and how widespread before a diagnosis is made. Some people feel the labels CFS or fibromyalgia are slapped on after everything else has been eliminated and to an extent that is true but there are more everyday causes of many of the symptoms, and it is logical to look at these first.

You can have some symptoms and not others, but in general the Symptoms that apply only to chronic fatigue syndrome can be:

Knotted muscles are tender to the touch but don’t necessarily cause shooting pains. Sore throat, and swelling of the lymph glands but without infection, depression, irritability and panic attacks, extreme crashes in energy, recovery from exercise that takes many days to several weeks, palpitations where no cardiac condition is present and a definite timeframe from which all this began.

Regards,

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Interesting post. I found it because I've been searching for this topic after my own experience over the years with sickness and weakened immune ssytem which I am starting to attribute partly to weightlifting on and off. I feel silly suggesting it on one hand, but in my opinion something to do with lifting even moderately heavy weights - particularly with the lower body, seems to just tip the balance for me personally.

Others like my partner thrive on heavy workouts. For me I've found swimming and even surfing regularly are ok, even this past month when I've been recovering from a cold, I surfed early morning (cold weather) and it didn't make it worse

Yet the weights just seem to have a different affect on my immune system, CNS etc.

I don't find much in the way of science to back it up.. it all feels very anecdotal. But my own experiences is telling me to drop the weights.

I'm going to stick with surfing and just a bit of bodyweight stuff (pullups, pushup etc) which don't seem to deplete me or have the same immune depressing effect

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  • Welcome to the site! I would encourage you to read the help section and take the tour, as we are not a discussion forum but a question/answer forum. As such, this answer reads more like a "me too" discussion than an answer. It does sound like you have some good experience to start from, and again, welcome! – JohnP Aug 2 '18 at 20:11

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