Should you exercise when you’re sick?

By Liz Meszaros, MDLinx
Published April 15, 2020

Key Takeaways

Regular exercise boosts your immune system and reduces your chances of getting sick. But, even in those who are diligent and dedicated to regular exercise, illnesses are bound to occur. While some people may feel the need to push through and get their daily exercise or workout in, the question is: Should you keep exercising when you’re sick? It really depends on what illness you have.

When to power through

Here are some specific recommendations on exercising with some common illnesses, according to research.

  •  Mild cold. In general, mild to moderate exercise when you have a common cold is acceptable. Mild exercises can include a leisurely walk or bike ride. Moderate exercises include faster walking, gardening, or cycling (less than 10 mph). There’s no need to skip your workout granted you have the energy to do so. And, if your energy levels are a little low, there’s nothing wrong with reducing the intensity or length of your workout.

  • Earache. Several illnesses can cause earache, including sinus infection, sore throat, and an infected tooth. Although you can safely workout with an earache, be careful if your sense of balance has been affected, because this can lead to injury. Also, try to avoid exercises that put pressure on your sinus regions.

  • Congestion. If your congestion is associated with a fever, productive cough, or chest congestion, consider taking a break from your normal workout routine until your illness resolves. But, if congestion is the only symptom you have, exercising when you are congested can help open up your nasal passages.

  • Mild sore throat. If your sore throat is associated with a fever, difficulty swallowing, or a productive cough, hold off on the exercising until you feel better. But, if it’s a mild sore throat caused by a cold or allergies, working out is safe.

Bottom line

With whatever illness you may have, remember: There’s nothing wrong with modifying your workout to accommodate how you are feeling. For example, if you don’t feel well, perhaps a walk would be a better option than a run. Or, perhaps do a session of yoga or Pilates instead of sprints or weightlifting. Both yoga and Pilates are regenerative activities, and when you are sick, a little regeneration can go a long way.

If you have a respiratory illness, here’s a good rule of thumb to follow: For symptoms above the neck—like sore throat, sneezing, tearing eyes, and nasal congestion—it’s alright to exercise. However, if your symptoms are below your neck—like chest congestion or tightness, fever, fatigue, and body aches—then wait until your symptoms resolve before you work out.

When to skip the workout

If you have a fever or are experiencing a productive cough, diarrhea, or vomiting, consider skipping your workout, for the sake of your own recovery, as well as the safety of your fellow gym-goers. Exercising when you have any of the following illnesses is not recommended:

  • Fever. Running a fever is a contraindication to working out. Exercise raises your core body temperature. If you already have a fever, this extra heat can do a lot of harm, raising your core temperature even higher. For fevers greater than 101 °F, absolutely do not work out. Exercise will only make your fever worse and increase your risk of dehydration. What’s more, researchers have shown that a fever can decrease your muscle strength and endurance, precision, and coordination—opening you up to a higher risk of injury.

  • Productive, frequent cough. While a mild tickle in your throat shouldn’t stop you from your normal workout routine, a more persistent cough should. Exercise increases your heart rate, which in turn increases your need for oxygen. Coughing makes it difficult to take a deep breath, and you are more likely to become short of breath and tired. Plus, coughing is one of the quickest ways to spread illness. 

  •  Gastrointestinal illnesses. Any illness that affects the digestive system causes serious symptoms that make any sort of exercise a bad idea. Diarrhea and vomiting both increase your risk of dehydration, and exercise only compounds this. The weakness and fatigue that are typical of digestive ailments could increase your risk of injury while exercising. And, noroviruses and other gastrointestinal illnesses are notoriously contagious. Skip the workout altogether until you are well. At the most, some light stretches or basic yoga at home can tide you over until you’re feeling better.

  • Flu. Depending on a lot of variables, the flu can be mild or severe. Not everyone who gets the flu will have a fever, but if you do, your risk of dehydration is increased. Exercising should be completely avoided in these cases. While moderate-intensity exercise improves your immune function, prolonged, high-intensity exercise—like running or spin class—can cause immunosuppression.

Bottom line

Try not to worry about missing a few workouts, as your overall health should be your number one priority. According to researchers, muscle loss only starts after going 3 weeks without training, and strength starts to decline after 10 days. Wait until your symptoms resolve completely before you go back to your usual workout routine. It’s also important to remember the contagion aspect of your illness. Adults with the flu can be contagious up to 7 days after first having symptoms.  

As you begin to feel better, try to slowly ease your body back into a little physical activity. And when you do go back to your routine, start slowly. Do a low-intensity, shorter workout. Drink plenty of water and take plenty of breaks if you need to. It’s alright to do what you can. Listen to your body, and if you feel that you have to push it too hard to finish your workout, then don’t feel compelled to complete the workout. Take care of yourself. Stay healthy.

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