Is It Okay To Exercise With A Cold? What To Know About Working Out While Sick From Doctors

 In Health

When you’re under the weather, skipping your workout seems like a no-brainer. But what should you do when you just have a cold or other minor sickness? Sure, you don’t feel as *amazing* as usual, but your symptoms aren’t too severe—so is it okay to exercise with a cold or no? It’s so easy to hit that play button on Netflix, after all.

Here’s the thing: Not all colds are created equal and there’s a lot of “it depends” involved in answering this one, says Jessalynn Adam, MD, attending sports medicine physician at Baltimore’s Mercy Medical Center.

For starters, there are solid arguments for exercising with a cold. Some gentle movement can actually boost the immune system, depending on how sick you are, says Dr. Navya Mysore, MD, Women’s Health advisory board member. (It can even give you a good boost from endorphins to make you feel better, says Dr. Richard Joseph, MD, CPT, chief medical officer at Restore Hyper Wellness.) That’s welcome news for the restless.

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But keep in mind, there’s a “delicate balance between your ability to engage in physical activity and your immune system’s ability to fight infection,” says Michael Jonesco, DO, a sports medicine physician at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.

Although “a lot of our energy when we’re sick goes towards fighting whatever you’re fighting, whether that’s a virus or a bacteria,” there’s no hard and fast rule saying you can’t work out at all, Mysore explains.

So, if you love moving your bod while dealing with a runny nose or mild headache, you can still go for it. (But more details on the when and how later.)

Before you hop on the treadmill, read up on everything to consider about working out while you’re sick, have a cold, or other mystery germs—provided, of course, that you feel up for it.

How do colds affect your ability to exercise?

Colds can come with a wide range of symptoms and they all impact your ability to exercise a little differently, Jonesco says. One common denominator, though: When you have a cold, your body jumps into overdrive to try to fight it, leaving you feeling tired in the process. That can mean less muscle strength and endurance, resulting in you feeling wiped out much earlier in a workout than you normally would, he explains.

And, if you have a fever, that can impact your body’s ability to regulate your temperature, causing you to overheat faster than normal, Jonesco adds.

Does working out help fight off a cold?

Eh, not really. Doing light exercise can help boost your immune system over time, but there’s no research that says exercising while you have a cold actually shortens the duration of your cold, Adam says.

Fitness can help you ~feel~ better, though. “Exercise releases a lot of hormones that may make you feel great, independent of having a cold,” says infectious disease specialist Amesh Adalja, MD, senior scholar at Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security.

Keep in mind, though, that if you overdo it when you have a cold, you could actually make things worse. “Exercising too hard when you’re sick can make it more difficult for your body to fight off the infection and it can take longer for you to get better,” says Kenton Fibel, MD, primary care sports medicine specialist at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Anaheim.

Not to mention, “trying to sweat a bunch can cause dehydration, and you really want to make sure you stay hydrated when you’re sick,” adds trainer Katie Kollath, CPT, co-founder of online training service Barpath Fitness.

TLDR: Even if you’re just dealing with the common cold, don’t feel obligated to “sweat it out.” Listen to your body and only exercise at a level that makes you feel good.

So, when can you work out with a cold?

If you have a cold and do want to exercise, follow the “neck rule.”

“If all of your symptoms are above the neck, you’re safe to work out,” says Adam. “But if you have symptoms that are below the neck, then you probably shouldn’t exercise. That’s the rule I use whenever I have an athlete that wants to work out.”

Under this rule, you’re okay to work out with these symptoms:

  • Runny nose
  • Nasal congestion
  • Sore throat

If you can work out with a cold, are certain exercises better than others?

Got the green light to exercise based on the neck rule? Don’t consider it permission to go all-out or push for a PR. “This is not the time to go and do your most intense exercise routine,” Adam says. “Your body is still fighting an infectious disease, after all.”

If you’re craving cardio, stick to light cardio—and don’t go for as long as you normally would, says Adam. Strength training, meanwhile, can be challenging because you likely already feel fatigued. “It’s not a good idea to go with heavy weights, but lighter weights should be fine,” she says.

Perhaps your best bet: Get outside. “Going for a nice low-intensity walk in the sunshine can definitely facilitate some healthy blood flow throughout the body and allow you to soak up some vitamin D (which strengthens the immune system),” says Kollath.

Of course, if you start to feel worse, call it a day.

The best workouts to do when you have a cold:

  • Light jogging
  • Exercise bike
  • Elliptical
  • Light resistance training

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The worst workouts to do when you have a cold:

  • Rigorous or long runs
  • HIIT
  • Heavy resistance training

Whatever routine you choose to do, just wipe down your equipment well after you use it to do the next person who uses it a solid.

So, when is it better to skip a work out with a cold?

You guessed it: The neck rule applies here, too. If you have symptoms below the neck (and/or you have a fever), it’s really best to chill out on the exercise front, Adams says. Take the rest day/s and let your bod recover.

Don’t exercise if you have any of these symptoms:

  • A cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • Body aches
  • General chest congestion
  • A fever

When It’s Safe To Exercise While Sick

Now that you know when to rest with a cold, you might be wondering about all those other mystery symptoms that pop up with other illnesses. Here’s how to decide whether to move it or camp out on the couch, based on your symptoms:

  • Mild cold with a stuffy nose or mild sore throat: You can still work out with these above-the-neck symptoms. You might still have a good amount of energy that can be used toward exercise, Joseph adds. Just be mindful about where you’re working out because you are contagious with these symptoms. Aim for a home workout or an outdoor one if there aren’t too many people in the area, Mysore recommends. But if your symptoms get more intense (like if it becomes hard to swallow or speak because of your sore throat), you’re better off resting, Mysore says.

  • Earache: If your earache is mild and not too uncomfortable, go for the workout, Mysore says. It shouldn’t be a deterrent for exercise if it doesn’t affect your energy, but you will want to get it treated so it doesn’t get worse, Joseph adds. If you happen to be walking or running outside in colder temperatures, bundle up so your ache doesn’t get worse.
  • Fever (both low- and high-grade): Here’s where your body needs extra TLC. “If you have a fever, that means your body is really trying to fight off whatever you are dealing with,” Mysore says. Remember that exercise is a stressor and so is a major illness causing systemic inflammation. In this case, it might be best to take time off, Joseph notes.
  • Productive or frequent cough: The advice varies based on the type of cough you’re experiencing. If you have a small cough, maybe from postnasal drip or you’re just clearing your throat a lot, you’re not really contagious, so it’s okay to hit the gym. If you’re coughing quite a bit and experiencing any shortness of breath—you shouldn’t try to exercise, Mysore explains.
  • Stomach bug/digestive: While you’re actively experiencing the worst of these symptoms (think nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and cramping), don’t work out, especially since you’re dehydrated, Mysore says. When your symptoms are improving, perhaps having one episode a day, you can to do a very low intensity workout, Mysore adds. A stretching session or short yoga flow at home are great options.
  • Flu symptoms: Definitely don’t try to work out with the flu, which can include a high fever, headache, muscle aches, chest congestion, and other major ughs that will likely keep you bedridden. “Just allow your body to rest so that you can recover,” Mysore says.
  • UTI symptoms: As a urinary tract infection progresses, you can adjust your exercise. On the first day of the UTI and with a fever or burning sensations, avoid exercising, says Mysore. That’s the time it’s better to rest up, drink some fluids, and see your doc to get treated. If it’s your second or third day on antibiotics and you’re feeling better and hydrating, try a low-impact workout, Mysore advises.

So, does working out while sick make you worse?

Think of it this way: Both exercise and being sick are stressors for your body, so combine one stress with another and you get MORE stress. Not exactly a winning combination for fitness gains or your ability to bounce back from being sick.

If you have severe symptoms, “these illnesses cause your immune system to work overtime and exercising will only create more stress for it,” says Keegan Draper, CPT, Fitness Specialist at Mindbody.

That’s especially true if you have a fever. “Your body is already warmer than it should be and increasing your temperature further will only make things worse,” he adds.

While a little light stretching may not do any harm, the biggest favor you can do for your bod when you’re feeling under the weather is to give it plenty of rest.

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Here’s how to safely (and politely) work out with a cold.

That said, if you’ve just got a cold and want to get moving, you’d ideally do it at home, where you won’t be spreading germs to other people, Adam says. You could also exercise outside, but if you suffer from allergies on top of having a cold, working out outside during allergy season will be pretty miserable, she adds.

If you want to do an indoor workout somewhere other than home, think twice if you have germ-spewing symptoms. “If you are sneezing or coughing, don’t expose others,” says Adalja. You wouldn’t want to run side-by-side with a sneezer, right?

Whatever you do, just listen to your body and take it easy. “Realize that it might not be the day that you PR, and that’s okay,” Adam says.

When is it okay to return to your workout routine?

Your set-to-sweat timeline definitely depends on your symptoms. You may need to wait three to five days after recovering for a more severe illness, according to Mysore. If your sickness came with a fever, Mysore recommends holding off on your workout until you’re back to normal temperature, so you don’t spread your germs.

For those experiencing a mild case, your turnaround time is quicker, especially if you take time to rest while sick. “If it’s a mild or moderate cold with a little bit of chest congestion, that might clear out a little bit faster,” Mysore says.

Listening to your body can help you know when you’re ready to get back into your regular workout routine. “Oftentimes even if you feel like you have good energy levels, it takes your body a little bit of time to bounce back to that same level of performance that you’ve had before,” Joseph says.

Avoid HIIT classes and circuits, even if you’ve had a mild cold, Mysore adds. “Take it slow, take it easy and work it up from there,” Mysore says. That means start with a combination of running and walking intervals and see how you feel. If the running speed is too much, make it a faster walk only.

The same rule applies for the weight room. Ease back in with lighter weights and lower reps than your usual routine and check in with your bod. “Your muscles might feel more tired, especially if you’re coming back from the flu,” Mysore says.

A version of this article originally appeared in the Feb 2023 issue of  Women’s health

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