Should You Exercise When You Are Sick?

sick woman

Cold and flu season is upon us and the age-old question always arises: “Should I exercise when I am sick?” There are few things more frustrating than getting into a regular routine of exercise and seeing progress, only to wake up one morning feeling like…well, you know. We all understand the need to push ourselves if it’s just laziness keeping us away from the gym, but we can’t control when we get sick, and there are times when working out can do more harm than good.

Be cautious if you’re contagious.

The general rule of thumb (and just plain good gym etiquette) is, if you’re contagious, stay home and do what you can for exercise there. (Bodyweight exercises are a good option if you don’t have workout equipment.) Cold germs can live on hard surfaces (think dumbbells, machine handles, and benches) for a few hours, and flu viruses even longer! With a cold, you are contagious for approximately 5 full days, primarily during the times when you are most symptomatic (a.k.a. feel the worst). If you do contract the actual flu virus, you are contagious for the first 5-7 days, sometimes before you even realize that you are sick. In short, if you’re sick, stay out of the gym to prevent spreading the germs to fellow members and staff.

Your ailment should determine your activity level.

The good part of all this is, physically fit people recover from most illnesses quicker and usually have milder symptoms than those who do not exercise regularly. So, congrats to those who already exercise regularly. You’re ahead of the game! For most people, staying active can help keep your immune system in top gear and help you sleep better, promoting rapid healing. But when you’re sick, it’s important to note the different types of common ailments that may affect you, and how that should affect your activity level.

Scenario 1: It’s just a run-of-the-mill common cold.

The first, and probably most important thing to remember is the above-the-neck rule. If your symptoms include a runny nose, dry cough or sneezing, it’s most likely not harmful for you to exercise—although, it may be beneficial to consider reducing the effort expended in your workout routine, and it would be best to exercise at home. A stuffy nose can make a cardio workout a challenge, but not impossible, if you listen to what your body is telling you. If you feel worse after you exercise, you definitely need to cut back the intensity or duration of your routine. Overall, any type of workout should be fine, just pay attention to how it’s affecting you and adjust as needed.

Scenario 2: I think I have more than a cold.

You should absolutely rest if your symptoms are below the neck, such as chest congestion, muscle aches, or upset stomach—or especially, if you have a fever. If you have stomach symptoms, a fever, are physically exhausted, or know that you have the flu, there is no point in trying to exercise. Rest, drink plenty of non-alcoholic fluids, and take over-the-counter symptom-relieving medicines. These are the tried and true steps to getting better faster. If you have a fever, you tend to become dehydrated easily, so exercising in this condition is definitely not wise. It will only make matters worse. You should rest until your temperature is normal for 24 hours, without the aid of fever-reducing medications. Muscle aches during the flu are your body’s way of telling you that your body temperature is elevated and it’s using most of its resources fighting off a virus. Making your system choose between expending energy to exercise and fighting the flu virus will only prolong your illness.

Ok, I’m feeling better. When can I exercise fully again?

Listen to your body like you would with an injury. It can take more than a week to get over a cold and a couple weeks or more to fully recover from the flu. When you can breathe easily, have no fever, and your energy level starts to come back, it’s safe to start back again at a reduced intensity. About 75% of your normal activity level is a good place to start. It’s important not to push yourself too hard though; you don’t want a relapse or to exacerbate a diminished breathing condition.

In the end, there’s value in staying a little active (within the guidelines previously mentioned) and doing what you can when under the weather. That way, when you do go back to your regular routine, you will not have lost quite as much ground, and you won’t need to relearn the habit of exercise. When your body is ready to go back full steam, you’ll know!

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Bryan Forsing is an Elite Trainer and Anytime Fitness "Rebel" who owns the Anytime Fitness in Culpeper, Virginia. He is certified as a fitness trainer and specialist in fitness nutrition, senior fitness, and exercise therapy. Food (it's fuel first!), other members' success stories, and maintaining the best shape of his life while medication-free keeps him motivated and active every day.