- Exercising When Sick: Should You or Shouldn’t You?
- Should I Work Out When I’m Sick?
- If you have a simple cold or cough . . . scale back on the intensity.
- If you have a fever or the flu . . . skip the workout.
- If you have aches and pains . . . listen to your body.
- Why You Shouldn’t Work Out When You’re Sick
- You Asked: Should I Exercise When I’m Sick?
- Thank you!
- How long should you rest?
- Exercising while you’re sick
- Think about skipping the gym
- What Really Happens When You Work Out When You’re Sick
- How can you boost immune system with your diet and hydration?
- If Your Symptoms Are Above the Neck
- If Your Symptoms Are Below the Neck
- Are Some Workouts Better Than Others When You’re Sick?
- Is It OK to Work Out When You’re Sick?
- Can You Work Out When You’re Sick? Here’s What Experts Say
- Should You Exercise While Sick?
- Quiz – Should You Exercise While Sick?
- Words in This Story
Exercising When Sick: Should You or Shouldn’t You?
The answer depends on what ails you, experts tell WebMD. For example, exercising with a cold may be OK, but if you’ve got a fever, hitting the gym is a definite no-no.
Fever is the limiting factor, says Lewis G. Maharam, MD, a New York City-based sports medicine expert. “The danger is exercising and raising your body temperature internally if you already have a fever, because that can make you even sicker,” he tells WebMD. If you have a fever greater than 101 degrees Fahrenheit, sit this one out.
Maharam’s rule of thumb for exercising when sick? “Do what you can do, and if you can’t do it, then don’t,” he says. “Most people who are fit tend to feel worse if they stop their exercise, but if you have got a bad case of the flu and can’t lift your head off the pillow, then chances are you won’t want to go run around the block.”
Personal trainer and exercise physiotherapist Geralyn Coopersmith, senior manager of the Equinox Fitness Training Institute in New York, has this to add: “The general rule is that if it is just a little sniffle and you take some medications and don’t feel so sick, it’s OK to work out. But if you have any bronchial tightness, it’s not advisable to be working out.”
You really need to know your limits, she says. “If you are feeling kind of bad, you may want to consider a walk instead of a run. Take the intensity down or do a regenerative activity like yoga or Pilates because if you don’t feel great, it may not be the best day to do your sprints,” says Coopersmith, the author of Fit and Female: The Perfect Fitness and Nutrition Game Plan for Your Unique Body Type.
“A neck check is a way to determine your level of activity during a respiratory illness,” adds Neil Schachter, MD, medical director of respiratory care at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York. “If your symptoms are above the neck, including a sore throat, nasal congestion, sneezing, and tearing eyes, then it’s OK to exercise,” he says. “If your symptoms are below the neck, such as coughing, body aches, fever, and fatigue, then it’s time to hang up the running shoes until these symptoms subside.”
Should I Work Out When I’m Sick?
When you’re feeling under the weather, you may wonder: is it better to sweat it out or rest and recover? Well, it depends.
Finding the motivation to complete a workout is one thing—but other times, pushing yourself through a brisk run or power through a yoga class when you’re sick can hurt your body more than help. We talked to medical experts and professional trainers to find out whether you should work out when sick.
If you have a simple cold or cough . . . scale back on the intensity.
According to Dr. Alison Mitzner, if you have a minor cold, it’s okay to work out. “Often, you will feel better with mild exercise and it also boosts your immunity,” she continues. “People who are used to exercise and work out frequently usually feel better with exercise rather than stopping. You may just need to decrease the intensity a bit. You know your body best, so just don’t push it.”
Aaptiv trainer Candice Cunningham suggests strength exercises for those facing upper respiratory infections, since cardio will feel much harder. Fellow Aaptiv trainers, Jennifer Giamo and Jessica Muenster, agree. If you’ve got a sore throat or sinus pressure, consider a light-to-moderate workout to help ease symptoms, release bodily toxins, or break up congestion. And if you’ve got a runny rose, don’t skip your workout, but scale back and treat it more like an active recovery day.
That said, always give yourself permission to take a break. “Rest is very important when you’re struggling with a cold,” says Aaptiv trainer Kelly Chase. “Your immune system is compromised and therefore does not need the stress from high-energy workouts. However, a gentle workout such as a walk or even restorative yoga may be good during this time because it’s giving your body the energy it needs to heal.”
If you have a fever or the flu . . . skip the workout.
“The best advice is to not work out if your symptoms occur below the neck. This means not working out with a fever since you don’t want to increase your body temperature even further,” explains Jasmine Marcus, PT DPT. She’s right, and the so-called “neck check” is based on a study about exercising while ill.
Cunningham also recommends skipping exercise if you’re running a fever. That said, don’t assume the lack of a fever gives you the green light to work out when sick. “ Depending on what’s wrong, running outside in the cold or doing something to aggravate your immune system or make it fight harder may only set you back,” she notes. “Always consult your doctor if you have questions but never beat yourself up for taking a rest day if you don’t feel well. Listening to your body is key.”
“If you have a fever and/or the chills, it is always a good idea to rest and not work out until fully recovered,” says Ehsan Ali, MD. When your body has the flu, it’ll take three to five days for symptoms (such as chills, nausea, diarrhea and vomiting) to taper off. Do not exercise until you’re feeling better and you’ve been fever free for at least 24 hours.
“There are two main reasons I typically will not work out: when I’m fighting a serious cold or the flu,” says Muenster. “That’s because you’re spreading germs and then creating an environment to make others sick. Second, your body needs to focus on healing itself. If you are working out, then you’re using energy for exercise and your body cannot focus directly on healing.”
If you have aches and pains . . . listen to your body.
Giamo usually tells clients to try a workout, and if they start feeling bad after 15-20 minutes, then call it quits. In any workout, you’ll experience some discomfort associated with muscles being activated, but notice things like being unable to catch your breath or wheezing, as these are additional signs to stop what you’re doing.
“If you’re feeling fatigued or excessively tired, it’s better not to work out when sick,” says Dr. Ali. “Save your energy to allow for your body to feel better and recover.”
“Decide if you’re up for exercising, or would feel more comfortable reserving your energy,” offers Dr. Marcus. “Often times after resting for a few days when sick, people will realize they missed working out and will come back more determined than before.”
If your body is up for it, Aaptiv has workouts that can go easy or hard depending how you’re feeling. .
Why You Shouldn’t Work Out When You’re Sick
A couple of weeks ago, I started coming down with a nasty bug. As Friday rolled around, I still felt not so hot and talked with my coworker about what to do regarding my upcoming weekend plans of snowboarding in the mountains. “You might as well go the mountains,” my coworker said. “You can be sick in the mountains or you can be sick at home in bed.” Feeling the point was valid, I packed up my snowboard and headed with friends up to the Rockies.
As I shivered by the fire at the mountain cabin a few hours later, my weekend trip suddenly didn’t feel like such a great idea. Looking at the faces of my friends who were witnessing my violent coughing and trips to the bathroom corroborated what I knew to be true – I shouldn’t have been there. I should have been at home resting. Sometimes in life it pays to suck it up and rally, and sometimes you have to know when it’s time to rest and pay attention to your body. Being sick is one of those times. I guess I’ll chalk my weekend trip up to a lesson learned.
To Work Out or Not to Work Out
At this time of year, one of the most frequently asked questions in and around fitness is, “Should I workout when I am sick?’ Having just learned this lesson the hard way, my short answer is no, you shouldn’t. However, there’s certainly more to the question and this query requires a more in-depth analysis versus a simple short answer.
Like many topics in fitness, there isn’t a clear-cut, scientific answer to working out while being sick. Conventional wisdom suggests that if you’re only sort of sick (for example, a cold), it does no harm to work out and if it feels good, then why not. Conversely, the opposite is considered to be true – if you’re really sick (for instance, the flu), you should probably not work out as you could be doing more harm than good.
Time to Do a Neck Check
According to Thomas Weidner, head of athletic training at Ball State University, you should perform what’s called a neck check. That is, when determining whether or not to exercise, if your symptoms are above the neck – sneezing, sore throat, and runny nose – then it’s probably okay to work out. Weidner drew his conclusion from two different controversial studies in which his subjects were actually infected with the common cold. Evaluating his subjects in a controlled environment, he determined their symptoms were no worse (or better) for exercising while being ill. In fact, the group that exercised, versus the group that didn’t, reported feeling slightly better after exercising.
Of course there are benefits to working out in general as it relates to our health. Specifically, exercise is a scientifically proven immunity booster. Exercising regularly may help you avoid getting sick in the first place. In a study at the University of South Carolina, adults who exercised regularly and moderately caught twenty percent fewer upper respiratory tract infections. That said, while exercising moderately can boost immunity, the opposite is also true. Intense and vigorous exercise can increase your susceptibility to being sick. While all of this is well and good, it’s not necessarily news. It’s common sense that we should exercise for boosting our immunity when we’re not sick and that we should rest to boost our immunity when we are sick.
Why Am I Sick to Begin With?
In my estimation, the question of exercising when we are sick isn’t the right question to ask in the first place. A more valid question might be, “I’m sick. Why is body not in balance and what can I learn from being sick?” Being sick happens to us sometimes. When we’re sick, it means our body is out of whack. While we simplify being sick to the bad luck of “catching” a cold, there is much more to the story. The problem lies in our reactive societal approach to health and wellness in general – treating symptoms versus causes.
Many experts concur that the ultimate cause of sickness is stress. Stress produces the hormone cortisol, and cortisol turns off the production of cytokines, the molecules that encourage an aggressive immune response. While there are many ways to alleviate and manage stress (exercise being a key one), there are few ways to actually solve it. However, if stress is the root of what ails us, then why not take being sick as an opportunity to tackle stress head on versus avoiding or masking it? Exercising while being sick potentially does just that- masks the fact that you really don’t feel well.
Furthermore, exercising when sick certainly doesn’t aid your recovery process. So why do it? While exercising when we’re ill may help us feel better for the moment, it hardly helps us slow down to see the bigger picture of our health. Though perhaps not a popular opinion, I almost think we’re supposed to get sick on occasion. Our ultimate job in sickness is to learn and grow from the setback, as we should any challenge in life.
If you’re sick here’s a few tips for making your way through it and being truly better on the back end:
- Lean into sickness. As tempting as it is to mask every symptom of sickness, lean into pain when it appears in any facet of your life and learn what is to be learned from your unwelcome visitor.
- Take the downtime of sickness as an opportunity to be introspective. Take inventory of your body and especially the stress level in your life. Where are there opportunities to make changes?
- Use the neck check to determine your ability to exercise. If you absolutely must exercise, do exercise that encourages mindfulness, like yoga or meditative internal martial arts like qi gong. Do pure aerobic training, but avoid high-intensity anaerobic training, as intense exercise may actually suppress your immunity. Do not cause your body to be under duress or additional stress when you’re sick.
When it comes to the final word on being sick and whether you should exercise, it comes down to three words – rest, reflect, and recover. Do that.
1. Thomas Weidner et al, “Effect of exercise training on the severity and duration of a viral upper respiratory illness,“ Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 1998.
2. C.E Matthews et al, “Moderate to vigorous physical activity and risk of upper- respiratory tract infection,” Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 2002.
Photos courtesy of .
You Asked: Should I Exercise When I’m Sick?
If you want to protect yourself from colds and flu, regular exercise may be the ultimate immunity-booster. Studies have shown that moderate aerobic exercise—around 30 to 45 minutes a day of activities like walking, biking or running—can more than halve your risk for respiratory infections and other common winter maladies.
There’s some evidence that very intense exercise—running a marathon, say—can briefly suppress your immune function, says Dr. Bruce Barrett, a professor of family medicine at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. But in general, physical activity is a great way to shield yourself from illness, he says.
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Other experts agree. “Your immune system needs activity to do its job better,” says David Nieman, a professor and director of the Human Performance Lab at Appalachian State University. “Every time you exercise, you increase the circulation of important immune cells.”
But once you’ve caught a bug and are feeling crummy, the story changes. “Exercise is great for prevention, but it can be lousy for therapy,” Nieman says.
Research from Ball State University shows that moderate exercise has no effect on the duration or severity of the common cold. “If your symptoms are neck up—things like sinus and nasal congestion, sore throat, etc.—exercise neither helps nor hurts,” Nieman says. If you feel up to it, there doesn’t seem to be much harm in continuing to work out, he adds.
But if you have the flu or other forms of fever-causing systemic infections, exercise is a bad idea.
MORE: Here’s Why the Flu Is Especially Bad This Year
“Back in the 1940s during the polio epidemic, some investigators noticed that athletes who played a hard game of football were coming down with the more severe form of polio,” Nieman says. This observation led to follow-up studies on the way viruses respond to exercise in both primates and humans. The sum and substance of those studies, Nieman says, is that a body infected with flu can react very poorly to physical activity. “A lot of athletes have this idea that, if I have a fever, I should sweat it out,” he says. “That’s the craziest idea ever.”
Other experts repeat his warnings. “Never exercise with flu or fever,” says Mariane Fahlman, a professor of health education at Wayne State University.
Fahlman has examined how training affects the immune function of cross country runners. She says that when a person is suffering from flu or some other fever-causing infection, his immune system is working overtime to fight off that infection. Exercise is a form of physical stress that makes the immune system’s task more difficult.
There may be far more serious consequences.
In the 1990s, researchers in Australia found evidence that some athletes who continued to exercise while suffering from flu developed a form of chronic fatigue syndrome that, in some cases, stuck around for several years. “These are painful case histories to read,” Nieman says. “We don’t know exactly what’s going on, but my belief is that the virus spreads throughout the body in a subclinical form and engages the immune system and makes the individual feel tired.”
MORE: TIME’s Guide To Exercise
He says the research on this phenomenon is far from conclusive, but that he’s personally worked with dozens of athletes who have suffered from this form of prolonged, virus-induced fatigue. Even after their infection was gone, they’ve reported feeling weak and tired, and some have not been able to perform at their previous level for months or even years.
“I know that not exercising at all is a bitter pill for many to swallow,” Nieman says. (He’s run 58 marathons himself, so he knows how difficult it can be to take a week or two off from training.) “But if you have the flu or anything that causes fever or muscles aches or weakness, that’s a time to not exercise at all.”
Once your fever has subsided, wait a full week before easing yourself back into exercise, he says. Start with long walks, and progress to moderate workouts. By the end of the second week post-fever, if you’re feeling good, you can return to your usual training. “If you have any muscle aches or weakness, you want those to be gone before you try vigorous exercise,” he adds. “You may feel like you can push through it to feel better, but this is wrong.”
Like a broken arm or sprained ankle, your flu-weakened body needs time and rest to fully heal before it can stand up to the rigors of exercise.
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How long should you rest?
You have a fever and body aches. How long should you rest before returning to your regular exercise routine? Again, it depends. If you have a cold, you should be feeling better within a week. Other sicknesses like bronchitis or a sinus infection can last two weeks, maybe longer if left untreated. The best course of action usually means holding off while you have below-the-neck symptoms, then easing back into your regular exercise routine as you start to feel relief.
Exercising while you’re sick
Just because your symptoms are concentrated above the neck doesn’t mean you need to exercise. If you try to work out while you’re sick with a cold and find it’s killing you, slow down! Taking a few days off from your regular exercise won’t ruin all of the progress you’ve made. You can even exercise regularly but bring down your intensity. So instead of running five miles like you normally do, walk one or two. Similarly, think about doing a yoga class instead of your regular HIIT class.
Think about skipping the gym
When you’re sick and decide to continue exercising, you may want to skip the gym. Whenever you’re sick, there’s a period of time when you’re contagious. Instead, exercise at home or outdoors. A gym is an easy place to spread germs, so if you do decide to go, be considerate of others. Wash your hands before going, cough into your sleeve, throw used tissues in the trash, and wipe down machines after you use them.
Making the decision to exercise while you’re sick doesn’t have to be difficult. By evaluating your sickness and using the above-the-neck rule, you can take care of your body in the best way possible. Talk to your doctor if you want more information on exercising while you’re sick.
What Really Happens When You Work Out When You’re Sick
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How can you boost immune system with your diet and hydration?
A recovery smoothie won’t be enough. You’ll need nutrients that will boost your workout recovery, as well as those nutrients that have been shown to help with immune support. While science seems to flip and flop whether vitamin C can prevent colds, meeting all your daily nutrient needs is the way to go. Same with drinking water.
The nutrition expert says: “Often, the supplements you’d take for workout recovery also help with sickness recovery,” says Latinsky, who is a spokesperson for Jamieson. “Amp up your vitamin C intake to the 1,000 to 2,000 milligram range each day, because vitamin C, as well as zinc and vitamin D, support a healthy immune system. Echinacea is great for enabling the body to fight off viral and bacterial invaders. Also consider ginger because, while we know it helps with nausea and upset stomach, it can also help naturally manage coughs.”
The fitness expert says: “Staying hydrated doesn’t have to mean just drinking more water,” says Bishop. “It may be easier to drink hot tea or chicken soup, especially if you are sick. Hot liquids may also help loosen congestion. Steam inhalation using a large bowl of hot water may also help. Some people like to add essential oils, such as eucalyptus, which has an antimicrobial effect. Also consider using a humidifier in the fall and winter, when the air starts to lose humidity.” And if you do work out with “neck up” symptoms, make sure you drink water – more than you would if you weren’t sick.
Stop feeling rundown and eat these foods that fight colds.
For the first time ever, you’ve been sticking to a consistent workout routine.
You’re hitting the gym in the evenings, no matter what happy hour plans your coworkers goad you with. You’re even managing morning sessions — and, even more impressively, you’re staying true to the meal plan you committed to at the start of your program.
With this momentum, nothing will stop you from achieving your goals — until you start feeling that tickle in your throat. Then comes the coughing, then sneezing, and then you can’t sleep. You’ve caught a cold, and now that it’s here, your gains are in jeopardy. Do you push through the discomfort, or shut down your progress to recover?
Colds and other minor illnesses are bound to throw you off your game at one point or another, since the CDC estimates that US adults catch a cold two to three times a year. Since you’re going to have to deal with the symptoms either way, you should have a game plan to decide when it’s serious enough to pause your routine..
If you’re sick but still want to work out, ask yourself one question: Are your symptoms above or below your neck?
If Your Symptoms Are Above the Neck
For symptoms isolated above the neck — think the congestion, sore throat, or sneezing of a common cold — you can continue light or moderate activity.
Try taking a non-drowsy decongestant to help fight your symptoms. If your energy level feels good enough, you can head to the gym: just dial back the intensity of your workout.
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Think of your fellow gym-goers, too: Make sure you wash your hands, wipe down your equipment after use, and cough or sneeze into your shoulder rather than your hand to reduce the risk of spreading your germs to others.
If you start to feel worse, take down your intensity a notch or end your workout early, so you don’t make your sickness worse. And get back to your normal routine gradually: Diving back into intense exercise—especially when you’re not feeling 100 percent—can actually suppress your immune system, which can slow your recovery.
If Your Symptoms Are Below the Neck
If your symptoms are below the neck — coughing, shortness of breath, chest tightness, nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea — or system-wide, like fever or joint aches — you should flat-out skip your workout.
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These symptoms can point to a more serious infection.
Plus, not only will you likely not be able to tolerate your normal routine, but attempting it could also put you at risk for respiratory problems, dehydration, dizziness, or even passing out.
Are Some Workouts Better Than Others When You’re Sick?
The type of exercise you perform while sick doesn’t matter as much as the intensity. For instance, if you were set to do some sprints, try jogging instead. Or if you’re lifting that day, dial back your weight and up your reps—just make sure to take longer rest breaks than usual between your sets.
If you’re a fitness class junkie, it may be a good idea to skip the group workouts for a solo session. As previously mentioned, you’ll want to avoid spreading germs by sneezing in the middle of a crowded class.
Drew Watson, M.D., M.S., is a physician in the department of orthopedics and rehabilitation’s division of sports medicine at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health.
Melissa Matthews Health Writer Melissa Matthews is the Health Writer at Men’s Health, covering the latest in food, nutrition, and health.
Is It OK to Work Out When You’re Sick?
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For some people, taking a day or two off from the gym is no biggie (and maybe even a blessing). But if you faithfully do #yogaeverydamnday or can’t stand to skip spin class, you’re probably wondering if you should work out with a cold or not. Here, what you need to know about working out while sick. (Related: Sweat or Skip? When to Work Out and When to Pass)
When Working Out While Sick Is Fine
The short answer: It depends on your symptoms and what kind of workout you’re doing. “Generally, if your symptoms are above the neck, such as a mild sore throat, runny nose, or watery eyes, it’s okay to exercise,” says Navya Mysore, M.D., a primary care provider and medical director at One Medical in NYC. However, if you’re experiencing symptoms in the chest area and below, such as coughing, wheezing, diarrhea, or vomiting, it’s better to take a break, says Dr. Mysore. And if you have a fever or you’re short of breath, definitely skip it.
So, whether or not you should work out with a cold totally depends on your symptoms on that particular day with that particular virus—just because your friend is powering through HIIT class while she’s sniffling doesn’t necessarily mean you should too.
That said, you’re not crazy if you think working out while sick makes you feel like you’re on the upswing; you can blame those post-workout endorphins for the temporary “I’m feeling better” rush after a sweat sesh. That doesn’t mean it’s good for you in the long run, though. Think about it this way: Your body needs to use all its reserves to heal, explains Stephanie Gray, D.N.P., nurse practitioner and author of Your Longevity Blueprint. “When you’re dealing with a major infection, intense exercise can actually prolong your recovery,” she says. (More on that here: That Really Hard Workout Might Be Making You Sick)
When You *Should* Work Out While Sick
Here’s the catch: Certain kinds of calming exercises—like walking, stretching, and light yoga—may actually help ease certain conditions such as colds, menstrual cramps, or constipation.
“Gentle exercise promotes blood flow and reduces stress on the body, allowing it to work harder to fight off infection,” explains Gray. And if you’re mildly to moderately constipated, moving around can help get your digestive system back on track, says Dr. Mysore.
Also, heat may help you feel better—with a caveat. “The idea that you can ‘sweat it out’ is a little bit of an old wives tale—you can’t ‘sweat out’ a virus,” says Dr. Mysore. “However, if you feel congested and the heat of a sauna or a hot yoga class helps you breathe easier, then great.” (BTW, here’s the truth about whether you can sweat out alcohol or not.)
It also may help prevent future infections: One 2017 study found that “frequent” sauna baths helped reduce the risk of respiratory conditions such as asthma or pneumonia. (More here: Are Hot Fitness Classes Actually Better?) Plus, exercising, in general, helps build up your immunity, adds Dr. Mysore. “Working out three to four times per week (30 to 40 minutes per workout) will help your body fight off illness and infection in the winter time,” she says.
It’s important to note that if you’re working out with a cold, some yoga poses (think: downward dog) may lead to worse nasal congestion and discomfort, says Gray. In that case, skip it, and relax in a hot sauna instead. And if you are experiencing diarrhea, you’re likely already dehydrated, so avoid sweating, which may worsen your symptoms, says Dr. Mysore. (Related: This Is the Best Way to Fight a Cold)
If you choose to work out while sick, there are a few red flags to watch for: If your muscles are feeling fatigued and achy, if your breathing is off, or if you feel feverish and weak, definitely stop and go home, she says.
Precautions to Take When Working Out While Sick
Remember: It’s not just about you. “If you’re contagious with a virus, a cough, or a cold, be polite to those around you-take it easy and stay home,” suggests Gray. Plus, gyms aren’t the cleanest places and visiting them while sick is pretty risky since your immune system is already being taxed.
When you’re under the weather, it’s a better idea to go for a walk outside or a do a home workout if possible, says Dr. Mysore. But if you do hit the gym, make sure you wipe down machines, cover your mouth if you cough or sneeze, and don’t leave Kleenex lying around.
If you’re working out with a cold, you also want to prep your body by providing it with the proper nutrients and hydration before a workout. “Drink plenty of water, and consider coconut water or adding an electrolyte powder to your water when you’re sick,” says Gray. A high-quality capsule multivitamin-as well as nutrients such as magnesium, zinc, vitamin C-are also excellent to add to your routine.
One last point: “I know it can be hard for gym rats to slow down, but it’s generally super helpful to not work out with a cold. Your body will be appreciative and receptive to taking a break,” says Dr. Mysore. If you’re afraid of losing your #gainz, don’t worry too much-you’ll be feeling better and back at it before you start to lose any cardio or strength.
- By Locke Hughes @LockeVictoria
Can You Work Out When You’re Sick? Here’s What Experts Say
Getting sick is a bummer on all fronts. Being all sneezy and achy while feeling under the weather is no one’s idea of fun. And for those who like to stay active, the interruption to your fitness routine can be especially annoying. But can you work out when you’re sick?
According to TIME, exercise can help protect you from colds and flu year round. Moderate exercise, like 30 to 45 minutes of walking, jogging, or cycling per day can help ward off sickness, TIME notes. Working out when you’re experiencing symptoms, however, is a different story.
“When you’re sick, your symptoms should really dictate whether or not you work out,” Dr. Darria Long Gillespie, a Harvard and Yale-trained ER doctor and author of Mom Hacks, tells Bustle via email. “If you’re feeling mainly symptoms ‘from the neck up,’ like nasal congestion/runny nose or a sore throat, a workout can be helpful — just take it easy.”
Dr. Gillespie also suggests that a mild workout like an easy jog or bike ride can help clear up symptoms. But intense workouts should be avoided, especially in extreme heat or cold. Dr. Gillespie says, “if your symptoms are ‘from the shoulders down,’ such as shortness of breath, abdominal pain, or nausea/vomiting, it’s a good idea to take the day off and rest.” Dr. Gillespie also recommends skipping your workout if you have full body symptoms like a fever or body aches.
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Popular Science says that, in general, exercising when you’re body is fighting a bug won’t compromise your immune system. Dr. Bruce Barrett of the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health told Popular Science that up to 20 percent of flu infections don’t show any symptoms, so if you stay active regularly, you’ve probably worked out while your body was fighting off an illness at some point. “Up to half of rhinovirus infections are asymptomatic, so you never feel sick,” Dr. Barrett noted. So, while getting a workout in while you’re fighting off a cold probably won’t interfere with your immune system, exercising when you’re actively sick can be a little tricky, TIME reports.
Dr. Purvi Parikh, allergist/immunologist with Allergy & Asthma Network, tells Bustle via email that exercise is off limits if you have chest congestion or a persistent cough, or any kind of respiratory infection that makes it difficult to breathe deeply. “It is generally not a good idea to work out when you’re sick … and intense workouts may prolong illness,” Dr. Parikh says. She further says that “You absolutely should not work out if your illness includes any breathing symptoms … working out with respiratory symptoms can be dangerous.”
Also, bear in mind that working out at the gym when you’re sick means that you might spread your illness, so it’s probably best to stay home until your symptoms have cleared up. And if you have the flu in particular, experts strongly advise staying home until you’re better to avoid spreading the highly contagious virus, Healthline further notes.
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Dr. Clare Rock, MBBCh, Assistant Professor of Medicine at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and Associate Hospital Epidemiologist at the John Hopkins Hospital, tells Bustle via email that it’s good to remember that, if you just have a very mild cold (and nothing more serious) and you decide to workout, “Proper cough and sneeze etiquette is very important” wherever you’re working out. “Have tissues to cough or sneeze into, and dispose of them straight after use.” Dr. Rock further suggests that frequent hand washing is important, as is wiping down all your fitness equipment with a disinfectant wipe after use, so that you don’t potentially spread germs.
So, when is it OK to get back to your workouts once you’re feeling well again after a major bout of seasonal sickness? Healthline says that it’s important to make a full recovery before hitting the weights or your yoga class if you have the flu, or any other symptoms that making working out a bad idea. As your symptoms begin to subside, you can slowly start reintroducing more activity into your routine, as long as you’re careful not to push too hard.
Once you’re ready to start working out again, start with shorter, low-intensity workouts, while making sure to stay hydrated, and gradually add to your workouts over time as you continue to recover. And if you’ve been under the care of a doctor, make sure to listen to your body, and check in with your healthcare provider before getting back up to speed.
Should You Exercise While Sick?
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From VOA Learning English, this is the Health & Lifestyle report.
Exercise helps to keep us in good health. Doctors at the American Heart Association suggest getting at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity every week.
Many people have an exercise routine. They exercise for a few minutes every day or every other day. So, getting those 150 minutes is easier.
But what about those times when you are sick? If you do not feel well, should you keep following your exercise routine? Will physical activity help you to feel better more quickly or will it delay the healing process?
Health experts answer these and other questions on the Mayo Clinic website. The Mayo Clinic is a nonprofit medical center in the United States.
Edward R. Laskowski is a doctor at the clinic. He notes that “mild to moderate physical activity is usually OK if you have a common cold.”
Dr. Laskowski and other experts have a general rule of thumb about exercising when you are sick. It is usually fine to exercise, he explains, if your symptoms are all “above the neck.” These signs may include a runny nose, nasal congestion, sneezing or a minor sore throat.
In fact, Laskowski adds that exercise may make you feel better by “opening your nasal passages.” This may temporarily reduce congestion and help you to breathe more easily.
The American health website WebMD offers similar advice.
Geralyn Coopersmith is a physical fitness trainer who has written several books on exercise and nutrition. Coopersmith told WebMD: “The general rule is that if it is just a little sniffle and you take some medications and don’t feel so sick, it’s OK to work out.”
However, both Coopersmith and Dr. Laskowski suggest taking a break from exercising if signs of your illness appear “below the neck.” Be on guard for symptoms such as chest congestion, extreme cough or pain in the stomach.
But there are other symptoms that can tell you to avoid exercise. They include:
- a higher than normal body temperature,
- a sense of feeling extremely tired, also known as fatigue, and
- widespread muscle pain.
Coopersmith, the WebMD expert, adds that if you feel tightness in the chest, “it is not advisable to be working out.”
Both she and Dr. Laskowski suggest listening to your body. If you feel really badly, take a break and let your body rest.
If you don’t feel too badly, these experts both suggest cutting back on the intensity of your exercise routine. For example, if you usually run, take a quick walk instead.
Experts at the Mayo Clinic add that a “few days off from exercise when you are sick shouldn’t affect your performance.”
You can return to your usual intensity when you feel better. However, Dr. Laskowski warns that exercising when you have more than a common cold, could lead to “more-serious injury or illness.”
And that’s the Health & Lifestyle Report.
I’m Anna Matteo.
Anna Matteo wrote this for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.
Quiz – Should You Exercise While Sick?
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Words in This Story
mild – adj. not extreme or severe
rule of thumb – idiom a broadly accurate guide or principle, based on experience or practice rather than theory
symptom – n. a change in the body or mind which indicates that a disease is present
nasal congestion – n. Nasal congestion is the blockage of the nasal passages usually due to membranes lining the nose becoming swollen from inflamed blood vessels.
fitness trainer – n. a person who works with a client to plan a course of exercise
sniffle – v. to repeatedly take air into your nose in short breaths that are loud enough to be heard because you are sick or have been crying
tightness – adj. difficult breathing
Q: I’m not feeling so great. Should I still work out, or skip it?
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A: If you find yourself feeling under the weather and debating if you should hit the gym or hit your bed for a nap, consider the “neck check” first.
If your symptoms are above the neck ― sore throat, coughing, sneezing or runny nose ― it’s typically OK to still work out. But if your symptoms are below the neck ― chest congestion or hacking cough, muscle aches, fever, fatigue or upset stomach ― it’s a good idea to rest.
If you’re feeling less than your best but still want to try to power through a workout, then try to cut your effort by about 50 percent. Walk instead of run. Do one set instead of five. Or try a low-impact activity like yoga.
The general rule of thumb is to listen to your body. Taking a few days off won’t impact your fitness level. It’s especially important to focus on hydration when you aren’t feeling well. Most people who work out and then feel like it prolonged their sickness are most likely feeling the effects of dehydration, so it’s important to increase fluid intake.
If you have asthma or a heart condition, we recommend speaking with your physician before exercising.
— Vikas Patel, DO, primary care sports health physician
A sore throat, achy muscles and a runny nose can make you miserable, but if you still have the energy to exercise, should you? Aside from infecting everyone else at the gym, what’s the real danger? The good news: Fit people recover from illnesses quicker and experience milder symptoms than couch potatoes, according to a 2011 study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. Raul Seballos, M.D., vice-chair of the department of preventive medicine at the Cleveland Clinic, suggests the following guidelines for exercising before, during and after a cold or flu.
Q: When you feel a cold or flu coming on, should you change your regular workout routine?
A: If you feel like you’re coming down with a garden-variety cold, you can still exercise without significant limitations. If you begin to feel worse after your workout, however, cut back. Take a few days off or reduce your effort to 50% of your normal capacity. Walk for 15 minutes instead of running for 30 minutes, or do one set of lifting instead of five. Also keep in mind the above-the-neck rule: If your symptoms include a runny nose, dry cough, or sneezing, you should be fine to exercise. But if your symptoms are below the neck, such a chest congestion, muscle aches, upset stomach, etc., make sure to rest.
Q: What should you do when you’re in the midst of a cold or flu? (Does it help to “sweat out” a fever?)
A: Stay home if you have a fever, stomach symptoms or the flu. If you’re wiped out with fatigue there’s no reason to work out. Plus, you’re contagious the first five to seven days. Rest allows your immune system to recover. Get to bed early and get extra sleep, drink plenty of fluids (no alcohol), take over-the-counter cold and flu medicines or ibuprofen as you recover.
Q: When should you resume your regular exercise routine after you’ve recovered?
A: Again, listen to your body. Colds typically last for a week to 10 days, but you may need as many as two to three weeks to recover from the flu, depending on the severity. Don’t go 100% for the first three or four days. Start at 75% of your normal workout (for both cardio and weights) and increase gradually for the first week or so. If you try to go back too soon, you may just end up prolonging recovery phase. You may also be more short of breath if you’re recovering from an upper respiratory infection.
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During cold, flu, or allergy season, it’s all too easy to write off exercise until you feel 100 percent — an approach that can, over time, deter you from reaching your fitness goals. While you should A-L-W-A-Y-S listen to your body, and take days off whenever you feel like it, not all symptoms actually warrant inactivity.
Before you collect your get-out-gym-free card, consider these guidelines from Gregory Stewart, M.D., team physician for Tulane Athletics, and Stephen Rice, M.D., director of the Jersey Shore Sports Medicine Center in Neptune, New Jersey, and a spokesperson for the American College of Sports Medicine:
7 Signs You’re Too Sick to Workout
1. You feel light-headed and dizzy. Typically, standing makes the blood valves in your legs contract, which regulates your blood pressure and keeps your brain clear. But when a cold, irregular heartbeat or recent concussion leaves you under the weather, this process could be a bit off, and working out can make you feel faint and disoriented — a dangerous combo at the gym, and a surefire way to make things worse.
2. You’re achy, and you’re already sweating or shivering. They’re all signs you could have a fever, a defense mechanism your body uses to fight infection, which actually takes a lot of effort. When you hit the gym with a fever, though, it’s like working out double-time: It tires you out and more difficult for your body to fend off whatever is getting you down.
3. You’re nauseous or vomiting. While fresh air may help the nausea, moving around could bring up your last meal right in the middle of spin class. Totally not worth it if you intend to show your face at the gym ever again.
4. You look lethargic and pale. Not everyone is all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed before they hit the gym. But if you feel so-so and have lost all your color, take the hint and give yourself a break.
5. Your mouth is particularly dry. Fending off infection depletes your fluids — it’s kinda like sweating when you do a tough workout — and dry mouth can be the first sign of dehydration. Because you’re already prone to this when you’re sick, you’d be smart to skip your sweat session and have a drink (like tea, not booze) instead.
6. You can’t put your finger on it, but you just don’t feel right. Unless you’re suffering from laziness and severe lack of motivation, listen to your body. It’s saying, “Save your energy and make an effort to feel better!” So go on, take it easy!
7. You feel a cold coming on. In the long term, working out can strengthen your immune system. However, even short workouts can temporarily weaken it. When you’re on your game, you don’t feel the effects of this post-workout dip. But when you’re already feeling crappy, working out can make you even more vulnerable to illness — especially if you work out in a germ-filled gym.
4 Symptoms That SHOULDN’T Mess With Your Workout
Only you know your physical limits. Use these guidelines to inform your decision — but no sweat if you decide to skip the gym, anyhow.
1. Your nose is kinda stuffed up, but you feel fine otherwise. If you only feel gross above the neck (i.e., you have a head cold, headache, or nasal congestion without a fever or aches) working out is A-OK. And if you’re coughing up a little bit of phlegm from your chest, but feel good otherwise? Hit the gym; you should be fine.
2. Cramps. Good news: Exercise triggers the release of feel-good endorphins and increases blood flow, which actually alleviates cramps! Sorry, not sorry.
3. You puked this morning, but you feel much better now. Sometimes when your body responds to illness by triggering an isolated spell of vomiting, it gets rid of whatever was messing with your system. As long as you’re well hydrated (i.e., your urine is clear, and there’s a lot of it), there’s no need to skip your workout.
4. You feel meh, but you’re super-antsy. You know your body better than anyone. If skipping a workout will mess with your mood, don’t deprive yourself. Instead, go with an activity you do regularly, and give it about 70 percent of your regular effort. Walking, yoga, or a little light stretching outdoors could be just what you need to feel better.
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Elizabeth Narins Senior fitness and health editor Elizabeth Narins is a Brooklyn, NY-based writer and a former senior editor at Cosmopolitan.com, where she wrote about fitness, health, and more.