March 14, 2020

Is It OK to work out when I'm sick?

Dr. Drew Watson explains what you should consider when you're deciding whether to work out when you're sick.

I'm Battling a Cold, But I Don't Want to Miss My Workout. Is It OK to Exercise?

Although proper exercise is thought to be protective against the development of common viral infections such as colds, modification of your normal exercise program may be necessary when you become sick.

Generally speaking, you will be able to modify the volume and intensity of your activity based simply on how you feel. If you only have mild symptoms and you feel more or less normal with medication, it is reasonable to exercise, perhaps at a lighter intensity than normal.

Consider walking or jogging more slowly than you typically would. If you don’t feel well enough to get out of bed, exercising likely won’t help and you may feel worse afterward.

Consider Your Symptoms

Another simple rule is based on symptom location. If your symptoms are solely localized above the neck such as with the common cold (congestion, sore throat, sneezing), it is reasonable to continue light to moderate physical activity. On the other hand, if you have symptoms below the neck or more systemic such as fever, joint aches, shortness of breath, chest tightness, coughing, nausea, or vomiting, you should not exercise. These may be signs of a more serious infection. Not only will you likely not be able to tolerate much exercise, these can put you at risk for respiratory difficulty, dehydration, dizziness, or even passing out.

Prevent the Spread of Illness

When you are healthy and use the gym, remember to wash your hands frequently and wipe down the equipment with antibacterial wipes after use. Even if you’re not sick, when you sneeze be sure to sneeze into a tissue and throw it away or cough into your elbow. While you are sick, it is important to reduce the risk of spreading your illness. If you are experiencing symptoms, stay home from the gym until the symptoms subside.

Returning to Training Gradually

Most common colds will subside within 7 days, although symptoms can linger up to two weeks. Once you are able to tolerate exercise, it is important to return to training gradually. While light to moderate exercise appears to promote immunity, longer, more strenuous exercise may actually be immunosuppressive and could slow your recovery. This remains true once you are recovered and back to normal.

While individuals who exercise 3-4 times per week at a moderate intensity for approximately 30 minutes experience fewer colds than sedentary individuals, those who exercise more frequently at a higher intensity tend to become sick more often. In other words, while moderate exercise boosts your immune system, being sedentary or exercising too much may suppress it.