Exercising When Sick: Helpful or Harmful?

While some think of the sniffles as a great reason to skip the gym, others are eager to heal themselves with a good old-fashioned workout. Read on to find out when exercising while sick is a good thing-and when it's better to curl up with a big bowl of chicken soup. 

Physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist Edward R. Laskowski, M.D. at the The Mayo Clinic offers this advice: "Mild to moderate physical activity is usually OK if you have a cold but no fever. Exercise may even help you feel better by temporarily relieving nasal congestion.

Laskowski and fitness experts say, use the rule of "neck" as your guideline.  If your symptoms are:

  • Above the neck. Runny nose, congestion, sore throat, headache? Go ahead and work out.
  • Below the neck. Chest congestion, hacking cough, stomach or intestinal upset? Give your self a break.
  • If you have a fever, stay home. While experts advise sitting it out if your fever is greater than 101° F, most of us feel pretty lousy with even a lower fever. Instead of your usual run, take a walk, do a little stretching or simply rest.

Will it hurt you to exercise when you're sick?  The American College of Sports Medicine says the common cold is the most frequently occurring illness worldwide.  Here's their advice:  "Mild-to-moderate exercise (e.g., walking) when sick with the common cold does not appear to be harmful.  In two studies using nasal sprays of a rhinovirus leading to common cold symptoms, subjects were able to engage in exercise during the course of the illness without any negative effects on severity of symptoms or performance capability."

What if you're really sick?  ACSM says, "With a symptom complex of fever, extreme tiredness, muscle aches, and swollen lymph glands, 2-4 weeks should probably be allowed before resumption of intensive training."

If you decide to exercise, don't push yourself too hard.  Rest frequently.  Drink lots of fluids.  Listen to your body.  If symptoms get worse, give it up and refer these common sense tips below:

  • Sickness is our body's way of telling us it's time to slow down and heal. Does that mean your life needs to come to a complete halt? Not necessarily, but listening to your body is important.
  • Don't spread your germs around the gym or yoga studio. Your workout mates don't want to catch what you're throwing at them.
  • Don't let a day off sideline your whole fitness plan. Get yourself back out there as soon as you feel well enough.
  • If you suspect something more serious than a cold or mild virus, call your doctor.