Should You Work Out When You’re Sick?

February 7, 2020 - 6 minutes read

How to know if exercising is safe or if it’s risky when you’re battling a cold or the flu.

When cold and flu season comes around, it’s important to know what’s going to help your body and what’s going to hinder it from fighting infection and getting you back on your feet quickly.

Prevention tips to avoid getting sick

The best defence is usually a good offence, and that’s especially true when it comes to protecting yourself against the common cold or flu. By washing your hands regularly, getting the flu shot and staying away from people who are sick, you can greatly decrease your chances of being affected – but did you know that exercise can also play a positive role in boosting your immunity?

Studies have shown that moderate physical activity can help increase circulation to important immune cells and, in turn, can reduce your risk of a respiratory infection by more than half. That means that by completing just 30 minutes of general activity such as walking, jogging, strength training or yoga on most days of the week, you can have an extremely positive impact on your fight against winter maladies.

Working out when you’re sick

Even when you take all the necessary precautions, sometimes cold and flu symptoms still manage to sneak through. Once you’ve caught a bug, activity doesn’t have quite the same affect on your body and exercise no longer boasts the same immunity-boost as it did when you were healthy.

Though physical activity is great for prevention, exercising while sick has been shown to have little to no affect on the intensity or duration of the common cold. As it seems to neither benefit nor hinder your recovery from a mild cold, the choice of whether or not to exercise should therefore come down to the symptoms you’re presenting with, how high your energy levels are and how you’re feeling overall.

When it’s safe to exercise

If you’re experiencing symptoms that are all above the neck (dry, scratchy or sore throat, stuffy nose, sneezing, sinus headache and coughing), it’s likely that you have a common cold and it’s safe to engage in some light activity. Getting your body moving may even be beneficial to help open the nasal passages and clear out some of the build-up.

Keep in mind, however, that your body isn’t functioning at 100% during this time so your workouts should be dialled back to a mild or moderate state. Intense exercise can put unnecessary pressure on your body that can tax the immune system and slow down your timeline to get back to your healthy self. Avoid activities like interval training or high cardio exercise and reduce your normal weights to a lower resistance in order to give your body a bit of a break while it recuperates.

If at any point during your workout you start to feel dizzy, nauseous or like your symptoms are becoming worse, stop the activity and take a step back for a few days. The last thing you want to do is wipe yourself out further because you exercised too hard too quickly.

When exercise isn’t recommended

If the majority of your symptoms are more flu-like and exist below the neck (hacking cough, upset stomach, chest congestion, fever, chills, fatigue or muscle aches), exercise can increase the risk of dehydration and isn’t recommended at this time. Instead, give your body a little rest and relaxation before asking it to hop back onto that treadmill belt.

Once you’re no longer experiencing a fever, wait at least 2 days before going back to the gym or participating in an exercise class. Start slow for your first few days back by engaging in some light walking, performing some easy strength training or taking a restorative yoga class, then gradually build up from there until you feel like your energy has returned and you can push yourself a little harder.

Staying healthy in the gym

If you do decide to head to the gym while you’re sick, be considerate of those around you and be extra careful not to spread your germs or transmit your cold to the other people in the facility. Always cough or sneeze into a tissue or your flexed elbow, carefully wipe down the machines and equipment that you used during your program and be sure to frequent the hand sanitizer pump as you move through your work out.

While it’s always important to remain hydrated, working through an illness is a particularly vital time to drink lots of water. Keep a water bottle in your workout station and be sure to consistently drink up as you sweat through the session.

The take away

Remember that these tips are all just guidelines – if you have a cold but still feel miserable, let your body be your guide and give yourself a well-deserved break. Gradually get back into it as you start feeling better and always be sure to wipe down all your equipment!