Should You Exercise When Sick?

When to work out and when to rest when you’re sick

A young woman considers whether or not to exercise since she's sick.

When to work out and when to rest when you’re sick

Ready to hit the gym but feel a cold or the sniffles coming on? Should you exercise when sick?

Before you decide to skip your workout completely, you might want to think again. In some cases, light exercise, in combination with rest and good nutrition, can actually help you feel better, faster.

“Moderate exercise helps to increase your breathing and heart rate, which provides the body with more oxygen and blood flow,” says Christen Benke, MD, a family medicine physician at Scripps Clinic, Del Mar. “Delivering that extra oxygen and blood flow to an area with an infection, whether it’s in the lungs, throat or nose, helps the immune system fight off that cold bug.”

In addition, the increased breathing rate clears away mucus and constricts certain capillaries, which helps improve the drainage from a clogged ear or nose and also can open airways to help to cure a mild cough.

“Breaking a sweat and taking a hot shower afterward can also help any lingering body aches,” says Dr. Benke.

Exercise in moderation

While you still have symptoms, even with a minor head cold, reduce your activity level so that you do a light or moderate workout. Now is not the time to run that extra mile or increase the size of your weights. 

“A good goal is to get the heart rate up to about 60 percent of your maximum, or about 110 beats per minute for an average person,” notes Dr. Benke.

Also avoid activities where not feeling your best can put you at risk for injury, such as rock-climbing if you’re experiencing vertigo, or diving if you’re having trouble clearing your ears. If you are suffering from an eye condition, such as the extremely contagious pink eye, swim without goggles because they could harbor germs and the infection could be re-introduced to your eyes next time you use them.

Breaking a sweat can mean that you lose some hydration, so be sure to drink extra water after a workout. In general, while you’re sick, be sure to take in plenty of extra fluids, eat a balanced diet and get plenty of sleep.

Prevent the spread of cold germs

Another thing to keep in mind if you’ve been feeling under the weather is germs, which can be spread through your breath and saliva and can be carried onto other surfaces through your sweat.

If you are in the first few days of your cold, you may want to avoid the gym and opt for a brisk walk outside or doing a light workout at home to prevent getting others sick.

If you do go to the gym, be careful to wash your hands thoroughly before and after exercise, and wipe down any free weights or gym equipment when you’re done. Also, if you plan to exercise with a buddy, be sure they don’t have a suppressed immune system from medications or illness.

When to rest

While getting moderate exercise is fine if you have a head cold, there are times when it’s better to skip to gym and let your body rest.

Stay home and rest for a few days if you have the following symptoms:

  • Stomach symptoms, such as the stomach flu
  • A fever
  • A deep or painful chest cough or painful breathing
  • Strep throat
  • Aching joints, which could be a sign of the flu
  • Severe fatigue

You should also stop exercising if it starts making you feel worse or makes you dizzy or nauseated. When in doubt, listen to your body. “Trust your instincts,” notes Dr. Benke. “If any exercise is new to you or beyond your comfort zone, back off and wait till you’re feeling 100 percent.”

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