Should You Really Be Exercising When You’re Sick?

Sneakers and kettlebell next to each other.

Catching a cold or the flu is a common thing, especially in the cold season. The question that many gym rats ask themselves when they are sick is “Should I still workout or should I take a break?”

There isn’t a definitive answer to this question and it depends on the type of sickness you have and its symptoms. A good way to find out is to check if your symptoms are above the neck or below. “Above the neck” symptoms include nasal congestion or a runny nose, sore throat, sneezing or tearing eyes. In this case, it’s ok to perform a low-intensity workout. In case you are usually weight training, do your regular program BUT with lighter weights and fewer reps.

Or you can take a short break from your usual workouts (don’t worry, you won’t lose your gains in 5-7 days) and you can do a different form of low-intensity workout, like walking, yoga, pilates or Qi Gong. Even if your cold is light or moderate, it’s better to avoid intense workouts like heavy strength training, long distance running or high-intensity interval training.

Studies haven’t proved that exercise helps you heal faster, but it will improve your mood and well-being. Plus you won’t end up in bed all day long.

However, if your symptoms include high fever, headache, muscle and joint pain, diarrhea or vomiting you should definitely consult a doctor and avoid any form of exercise. In this case, working out will only make you feel worse and recover harder. While a simple cold goes away after 5-7 days, the flu can last for 10-14 days. But don’t worry because you’ll have plenty of time to get back to your workouts after you are completely healed.

How can you avoid getting sick in the first place?

Working out and eating healthy will definitely decrease the risk of catching a cold, but will not guarantee that you will never be sick again. It’s been proven that regular and moderate exercise can boost immunity, while living a sedentary lifestyle will decrease immunity. Pay close attention to the word “moderate,” because it’s been shown that prolonged and too intense exercise can also decrease immunity. MD Schachter Neil, the Author of The Good Doctor’s Guide to Colds and Flu says, “thirty minutes of regular exercise three to four times a week has been shown to raise immunity by raising levels of T cells, which are one of the body’s first defenses against infection. However, intense 90-minute training sessions like those done by elite athletes can actually lower immunity.”

Also, make sure to get plenty of vitamins and minerals in your diet, especially vitamin C and zinc, which will help your immune system fight viruses and bacteria, the main cause of colds and flu. Get 7-9 hours of sleep per night, as sleep deprivation can drastically lower immunity. And the most simple yet effective advice we can give you is the same that your mom gave you when you were a child: wash your hands before every meal and also after using money, public transportation or after getting in contact with a sick person.