Is Exercising When You're Sick Safe Or Can It Help? Experts Weigh In.

Questions about the safety of working out when sick with an upper respiratory infection are a common concern, according to doctors. Many folks pressure themselves to exercise even when they aren’t feeling 100% well — or hope a good workout will help sweat out their illness. (Spoiler alert: It won’t.)

It is frustrating when a cold or seasonal virus disrupts your weekly workout plan, especially if you’re training for a competition or race. So what can you do if you have the sniffles? Here’s what to know:

If your symptoms are mild and above the neck, you’re likely OK to work out.

“Generally speaking, it’s probably safe to exercise if you only have symptoms above the neck … like nasal congestion, runny nose, sneezing, sore throat,” said Eliza Gollub, a nurse practitioner at the health care service One Medical.

“There is evidence suggesting that moderate exercise doesn’t cause a mild cold to last longer or cause cold symptoms to be more severe, which is reassuring in those cases,” Gollub added.

When exercising with the sniffles, it’s important to stick to low or moderate-intensity exercises for a maximum of 30 to 45 minutes, said Dr. Calvin Hwang, a sports medicine doctor at Stanford Health Care in California. This could mean a walk, an easy weight workout or some yoga.

Further, these kinds of workouts can even be beneficial, Hwang noted. Studies that look at various markers of immunity and inflammatory markers found that low to moderate-intensity exercise activates some of your immune system cells. “And you amount the more vigorous immune response to the infection when you do a low to moderate exercise,” he added.

If you do choose to exercise while you’re sick, it’s important to think about the setting, too, Gollub said. You wouldn’t want to be at the gym next to someone who’s constantly sneezing, right?

“These are contagious viruses, and so to avoid spreading the misery around it’s helpful to avoid going to the gym or going to group fitness classes when feeling sick,” Gollub stressed. Use this time to do an online yoga class in your living room or to go on a quiet walk through nature.

Working out is not a good idea if you have a fever, a bad cough or diarrhea. In fact, it could make your sickness worse.
Working out is not a good idea if you have a fever, a bad cough or diarrhea. In fact, it could make your sickness worse.

Do not work out if you have a fever, body aches, a bad cough, or are experiencing diarrhea or vomiting.

“If you have a fever, that’s a sign that your body is mounting a response to this infection, and it’s utilizing extra energy in order to fight off this infection … and that’s a scenario in which I wouldn’t have you exercise,” Hwang said.

Additionally, Gollub stressed that the idea that you can “sweat out” a fever is a dangerous myth. “It can increase the risk for dehydration … your muscles are just not as strong when you’re dealing with a fever, so that’s a good reason to postpone your workout,” Gollub said.

Also, if you have body aches, you shouldn’t exercise “because your body is already in a compromised state, both from an energy and metabolic perspective,” he noted.

Additionally, if you are experiencing vomiting or diarrhea, you’re potentially already dehydrated because of those symptoms, according to Hwang. “So I wouldn’t recommend exercise in those scenarios because if you’re dehydrated from your vomiting and diarrhea, and then you exercise on top of that, you’re going to be even more dehydrated … you can pass out, you can have other serious health outcomes,” he explained.

Lastly, chest tightness, trouble breathing and a bad cough are red flags when it comes to exercising, too, Gollub said. “If you’re having a bad cough, it can be hard to breathe deeply and that’s likely to be worse during exercise than when resting.”

No matter your symptoms, avoid high-intensity exercise and endurance work.

As mentioned above, low intensity exercise is OK if you’re experiencing mild symptoms, but the same can’t be said for high-intensity or endurance work, both experts told HuffPost.

“If you’re doing really hard sprints, if you’re exercising for more than 60 minutes, that’s when the stress hormones start to take over in your body and that can actually suppress your immune system,” Hwang said. “At that point, I would not recommend doing that high-intensity, long duration endurance exercise because that can actually be immunosuppressive and potentially make your illness last longer.”

Listen to your body. If you don’t feel up for exercise, don’t force yourself.

Fitness trackers, apps and influencers can be the culprit of exercise pressure, leading you to believe you aren’t working out hard enough or don’t deserve a much-needed rest day. But don’t let that feeling force you to work out when you aren’t up to it.

“I think it’s really important for people to be able to offer themselves compassion and permission to rest if they need to, regardless of specific symptoms,” Gollub said.

“There are some situations where it is OK to exercise, but if you’re just not feeling up for it, that is perfectly fine, too,” she continued, adding that many people are more tired than usual when battling an illness — and who wants to work out when they’re tired?

Suffice to say, there is no way for you to “sweat out” your cold or flu, and in some cases, it can be dangerous to try. So, let yourself take time away from exercise and focus on getting better, instead.


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