When was the last time you allowed yourself to recover properly after feeling ill? Here’s why you should make time, as well as what to eat and how to work out once you’ve left your sick bed

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Recovery: we’re terrible at it, aren’t we? Just take a look around you on your way to work each morning for the proof; it’s worse in winter, of course, but without a doubt there’s always more than one person trying to sneeze as discreetly as possible or sniffling into a tissue. You know it’s peak illness season when there’s synchronised coughing echoing around the carriage and your office - and that catching it is just a matter of time as we plough on through the germs.

It’s not just the common colds and winter bugs that we battle through, either. At the end of January, I had a minor heart operation. I really do mean minor - the cardiologist acted as if he could do it in his sleep and only afterwards mentioned that they should probably prepare patients more for the procedure as it’s ‘really quite an ordeal, isn’t it?’. As ordeals go, though, it was minimal, and I was back at work five days later, going to meetings, stressing about deadlines, getting on with business as usual. Two weeks later, I was feeling frustrated. Why did I feel so awful? Why couldn’t I rush about from tube to train to tube without feeling like I’d been hit by a bus? It took for someone to point out ‘Well, you did have heart surgery two weeks ago’ for me to realise that maybe I needed to calm down a bit. That maybe I shouldn’t be rushing quite so much, or that getting stressed might be a really bad idea until my body was back to normal.

Perhaps it’s our stiff upper lip mentality or a symptom of a culture where the ever-struggling NHS sends you home almost as soon as the final stitch is sewn, but we Brits just don’t do recovering. We get on with it. But at what cost?

Around 137m working days were lost from illness and injury in 2016 according to the National Office of Statistics, which may sound high but in fact it’s equivalent to just 4.3 days per worker and is the lowest rate since 1993. We’re troopers; we don’t throw a sickie even when we’re sick, prioritising work or other commitments over our own health. But there is an art to recovery, and taking time to convalesce - or at least making sure you’re looking after yourself properly post-illness - will serve you (and your boss) better in the long run. Here are the rules of recovery to follow, whether you’re mid-illness, getting over it or sat near someone who should definitely be at home…

1. Take time out to avoid illness in the first place

Dr Megan Arroll, a psychologist specialising in health research says:  “There can be an almost competitive culture in the workplace with regards to coming into work when we’re ill. This isn’t only damaging to the person that has a cough or cold, but can also spread these illnesses. This cutthroat workplace culture has also led us not to take all our annual leave. However, by not convalescing and taking regular holidays, we are more susceptible to the negative effects of stress and burnout. The world will not end if you take a sick day. It may feel more trouble than it’s worth to miss work, but if you go back before fully recovered, your ability to work effectively is reduced. Take the time you need to recover and don’t check your work emails, or try to work from home. You’ll recover more quickly if you switch off properly. Yes, you are important, but everyone can cope without you for a short space of time.”

2. Don’t be a hero

“If you have the flu or norovirus, it’s really important to rest and stay at home,” warns Dr Eleanor Atkins from Bupa UK . “For flu you should ideally stay at home for at least a week to give your body the chance to recuperate. Both viruses are also highly contagious, so returning to work too soon while you’re still experiencing symptoms is likely to spread germs and make your colleagues poorly, which won’t make you very popular in the office! Once you’re starting to feel better you can consider going back to work but, if you’re still experiencing symptoms like a chesty cough, vomiting or diarrhoea, you should remain at home as you could still be contagious.”

3. Don’t run before you can walk

“When you’re ready to return, be realistic in what you can achieve in the first few days and don’t try to fit too much in or work long hours as this may tip you back into bed,” advises Dr Arroll. “If you’ve been off for a lengthy period of time, speak to your manager to make sure that your workload is appropriately paced. If you’re self-employed be disciplined and set yourself realistic goals – writing these down can help.”

4. Look after your gut

“We are learning more and more about the important role gut bacteria play in our health  and that includes immunity,” explains Rob Hobson, Healthspan's Health of Nutrition. "Prolonged bouts of diarrhoea from gastrointestinal illness can affect the diversity of your gut bacteria as can antibiotics that destroy these beneficial bugs.  Try incorporating probiotics into your recovery regime to help re build your gut microbiome. Supplements are the most effective way to replace good bacteria in the gut and you should look for well researched strains - such as bifidobacterium and lactobacillus . Look for a supplement that offers at least 10 billion bacteria per capsule and avoid taking with hot drinks  to maximise the number that reach the gut.”

5. Re-train your appetite

Whether you’ve had a sick bug or the world’s worst cold, knowing what to eat next is tricky. “Being ill can impact on your normal eating patterns and diminish appetite. Team this with the body’s increased requirement for nutrition to help fight infection and this can lead to low energy levels and the possibility of nutrient insufficiencies,” agrees Rob. "When recovering from illness, try and regain normality by eating three meals daily to re-establish a healthy appetite and nourish the body.  You may want to consider topping up with a multivitamin and mineral supplement such as Healthspan’s MultiVitality Gold ( £5.95 for 90 tablets ).”

Dr Atkins takes a vitamin-fuelled approach, too. “When you have your appetite back make sure you eat foods containing vitamins A and D as they’re proven to have a positive effect on your immune system, which will help to keep it working well."

6. Eat plenty of protein

“During illness protein helps with wound healing and the maintenance of tissues in the body,” explains Rob. "This nutrient is also required for the formation of antibodies that help to protect the body from infection, illness and disease. Make sure you have plenty of protein in your diet during and when recovering from illness.  Eating enough food to meet your energy needs is important too – to make sure protein is available to perform its role and not used to bridge the calorie gap.” Try these protein-packed vegetables for a start. 

7. Drink more fluids - but steer clear of alcohol

With a virus such as the flu, your immune system kicks in - so all you need to do is keep hydrated with plenty of fluids as you rest - but stick to water and herbal tea, says Dr Atkins. "Whilst you’re fighting a winter illness, it’s best to avoid alcohol. You rely on your immune system to help you get better, and drinking too much alcohol causes changes in your immune system. This can slow down your ability fight infections.” We love Pukka's herbal teas - try the Seasonal Wellness 7 Day Kit , £10 for a cold-kicking introduction.

If you’re in the midst of a bug but you do feel like eating, keep to plain foods such as rice, pasta and bread.

8. Don’t push your workouts too far

Nicola Addison, fitness expert for Healthspan, warns against jumping back into your usual workouts. "Entering back into an intense exercise routine when you’re not yet back to 100% after illness is a big mistake. The key is to build up gradually. Exercising lighter, but more regularly is always a good starting point. Try walking for 10 continuous minutes, three times a day and build your way up to 30 minutes of consecutive walking, daily.”

9. Be a beginner again, temporarily

"Spend a few minutes each day completing some dynamic flexibility and mobility exercises. This will increase the mobility of muscles and joints which will help improve posture and decrease the risk of injury,” advises Nicola. "Yoga’s always a good option as it’ll get your body moving again without going too far. You know the yoga teacher of a class always has a beginner, intermediate and difficult option per move? If you’re mid-convalesce, stick to the beginner moves!”

10. Reduce your rate of perceived exertion (RPE)

"If you simply can’t resist going back to gym, the RPE scale is a measurement of the intensity of your workout and runs from 0 – 10,” explains Nicola. "0 means you’re at a very low level (i.e. not moving at all) and 10 means you’re working at your maximum level. When returning to exercise aim to maintain at an RPE scale of 6’ as this way you’ll know you’re not pushing your body too hard.”

11. Think before you gym

"Sometimes working out when you’re ‘under the weather’ can help, but this is generally only the case with milder illnesses, like a common cold,” Dr Atkins tells me. "A useful rule to follow is if your symptoms are above the neck (runny nose, headache or a sore throat), then you are generally OK to work out but stick to moderate exercise and avoid overdoing it - for example, try power walking instead of running. If your symptoms are below the neck (coughing, stomach pain, aching or a fever) you should avoid working out and make sure you get plenty of rest to allow your body to recover. It’s worth being mindful that if you go to a busy gym with a cold, you’re likely to pass germs on to people through the air and using the equipment.” The tube is one thing; the treadmill, quite another. Stay at home.

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