Another great question from one of our exercise physiology clients in St Lucia:
Should I exercise when I’m sick?
In broad terms, moderate exercise and good fitness support good health. But improving your fitness levels doesn’t guarantee that you’ll never catch a cold or the flu. Here are your science-supported guidelines for exercising when you’re sick.
- Consider how sick you actually are. If your illness is moderate to severe, with an associated fever, aching muscles, extreme fatigue, or swollen glands, skip your workout and rest up. Do what you would normally do to get yourself better, whether that’s heading to the doctor or heading to bed with some extra vitamin C.
- If you are severely ill, with the above symptoms, you may need as much as two to four weeks away from moderate to intense exercise. Illness and exercise both stress the immune system in the same way, and depending on what type of viral or bacterial infection, pushing through to work out when you’re sick can actually make your illness worse. In extreme cases, this can lead to lasting damage to your heart or lungs.
- If your illness is minor, without any associated fever, muscles aches or fatigue, or swollen glands, you might be ok to exercise. General guidelines suggest that:
- If your symptoms occur above the neck (stuffy or runny nose, dry cough, or sore/scratchy throat), you’re safe to start with easy exercise or activity – think short sessions that are low intensity, like heading out for a walk. If you find your symptoms get worse, stop exercise until they improve.
- If you’ve got symptoms below the neck (fever, aching muscles, vomiting, diarrhea, or anything else to do with your digestive tract), rest up until your symptoms go away.
- Use your common sense. Do you feel too tired to work out, or otherwise just don’t feel up to it? Your body is giving you the answer right there! You wont make any gains when working out under fatigue or illness, and in fact you may prolong your recovery. Get some extra sleep and get back to quality exercise when you’re feeling ready for it.
Putting your workouts on hold can be frustrating, especially when you’re working hard to build your momentum and maintain your progress. If you’re feeling this, take a minute to step back and look at the big picture: You could push through and do your workout, but will it be worth it? You’re unlikely to make any gains in fitness, and may prolong your illness and recovery. We all need more sleep anyway, so indulge in that, get better faster, and get back to life as you want it!
For more information:
Gleeson, M. (Ed.). (2006). Immune function in sport and exercise. Sydney: Churchill Livingstone Elsevier.
Plowman, S. A., & Smith, D. L. (2017). Exercise Physiology For Health, Fitness, and Performance (5th ed.). Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.