Working Out

If exercise is a part of your regular routine, you might be wondering whether it is safe to continue your fitness regime while feeling under the weather. Whether you woke up with a horrible cough that won't go away or you're battling a tension headache, here is everything you need to know about working out while sick.

Is It Safe to Exercise While Sick?

Is it good to work out when sick? Depending on the location and severity of your symptoms, working out while sick can be perfectly safe. In fact, in some cases, an invigorating workout can help you beat some common causes of illness, like stress or tension.

That being said, you should avoid exercising if you are experiencing severe symptoms, such as diarrhea, vomiting or fever, or have been diagnosed with something like strep throat or influenza. When you are sick, your body is at its most vulnerable. Any unnecessary strain can worsen your condition and symptoms. Consider filling your allotted exercise time with additional rest. Your body needs as much sleep as possible to heal and recover.

Should you work out when sick? The bottom line is that you should listen to your body and the advice of medical professionals. If your symptoms are minor and not cause for concern, a light workout can be safe and potentially helpful. However, if your symptoms are severe or contagious — or a doctor has advised you to rest instead — skip the gym until you are better.

Symptoms Above the Neck vs. Below the Neck

Is it okay to workout with a cold? How about when you're just feeling a bit under the weather? When asked these questions, many doctors agree that one of the simplest ways to answer is by pinpointing whether your symptoms are "above the neck" or "below the neck." This means that "above the neck" symptoms, like nasal congestion, earaches and headaches, do not usually impede upon your regular workout routine. Those with "below the neck" symptoms, including vomiting, diarrhea and chest congestion, should avoid exercising until healed. 

It is usually okay to continue your exercise routine when experiencing the following symptoms:

  • Runny or stuffed nose
  • Sinus pressure
  • Nasal congestion
  • Earache
  • Sneezing
  • Minor sore throat
  • Allergies
  • Headache

Please note, if any of the above symptoms are accompanied by more severe symptoms or do not improve with time, stop your exercise routine, and speak with a doctor. Some symptoms are indicators of bacterial or viral infections and should not be taken lightly. You should avoid exercising and consult your doctor if you are experiencing one or more of the following

  • Nausea
  • Fever
  • Aching muscles
  • Severe sore throat
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Coughing
  • Chest congestion

Contagious vs. Non-Contagious Illness

Some sicknesses — such as allergies or those being treated with antibiotics — are not contagious. Other sicknesses can easily spread from person to person. If you are experiencing a contagious illness — even if your symptoms are minor — avoid visiting a gym, community center or other public space to exercise. Instead, keep your workouts limited to your home or outdoors. When in doubt, talk to your doctor about your symptoms and ask them if it is okay for you to be around other people.

The following common illnesses are usually considered contagious either on their own or as a result of an accompanying virus:

  • Influenza
  • Head cold
  • Strep throat
  • Pneumonia
  • Acute bronchitis

What Does Exercise Do to Your Immune System?

Is exercise good for a cold or other illnesses? Numerous studies have demonstrated that regular, frequent exercise can be very beneficial for your overall health, including your immune system.

  • More exercise equals less stress: Stress is damaging to the body. Too much of it can cause unpleasant side effects, like tension headaches and sore muscles, and weaken your immune system. Regular exercise can help slow the production of stress hormones, and it releases endorphins, which can make you feel happier and more energized.
  • Your body is performing at its best: Regular exercise helps you maintain a healthy weight, can improve cardiovascular health and helps lower blood pressure. When your body is performing at its best, it is much more equipped to handle and combat sickness.

There is no denying regular exercise is a healthy choice. However, some experts warn your immune system may be more vulnerable immediately following an intense workout because of how much strain you put on your body. To combat this, follow these guidelines:

  • Never skip warm-up or cool-down periods: To avoid injury, never skip warm-up and cool-down stretches before and after your exercise routine.
  • Disinfect workout equipment: Always thoroughly clean any fitness equipment with a disinfectant before and after use. When you are sick or working out with a cold, your body is more vulnerable — it is more important now than ever to keep your body free of bacteria and germs.
  • Make changes gradually: If your exercise routine usually involves light cardio and hand weights, do not immediately transition to more physically strenuous workouts like high-intensity interval training or heavy bodybuilding without easing yourself into the changes. If you are doing exercise when you have a cold or other illness, hold off on introducing any new changes to your workout routine until you are well or the symptoms have passed.
  • Eat a nutritious diet: Not eating enough nutrient-rich food can cause fatigue, muscle soreness and reduce bone mass. Make sure you are eating plenty of protein, carbs and healthy fats, so your body is performing at its best and is less prone to injury when exercising.
  • Drink plenty of water: Hydration is essential before, during and after any work out because it helps improve your performance and regulates both body temperature and heart rate.

How Hard Can You Workout When Sick?

How hard you can work out when sick depends on the cause, location and severity of your symptoms. For example, working out with a fever or exercising with flu symptoms is not recommended. However, it is possible to work out with other symptoms, such as sore throat and headache. You should gauge your workout intensity by frequently stopping to asses how your body is reacting. If your symptoms seem to be worsening or you feel generally unwell, slow down, and try a less strenuous workout.

  • Sore throat: When exercising with a sore throat, choose low-intensity workouts that do not put too much stress on your breathing, like yoga or light cardio. Hydrate regularly and frequently to keep your throat moist. Never exercise with a sore throat if it is a result of a serious illness, like the flu. Also, if your sore throat is causing a cough, know that working out with a cough is not recommended.
  • Allergies: Avoid exercising outdoors, including walking, running and biking, if you are suffering from environmental allergies. Instead, opt for indoor equipment at your local gym or community center. If you must exercise outdoors, do so in the early morning or after light rain when there is less pollen. Before heading out, check the daily weather forecast and pollen count. 
  • Earache: When working out with an earache, keep your workout indoors to protect your ears from wind or weather. If you have to exercise outdoors, make sure your ears are covered, especially during cold weather. Avoid swimming, as getting any water in your ear may exacerbate the problem. Make sure you are regularly cleaning and disinfecting any headphones or earbuds you wear while working out to keep bacteria out of your ear canal.
  • Headache: If you have a stress or tension related headache, exercising may help your body combat it. Choose a low-intensity workout that stretches your body and helps you relax, like yoga or light cardio. When it comes to working out with a headache, never skip stretching and warm-up before your routine. If anything, spend a little extra time to help ease your muscles. If your headache is a result of dehydration, take the time to hydrate before hitting the gym.
  • Upset stomach: As discussed earlier, you should never workout if you are feeling nauseous or your stomach aches as a result of the flu or other serious illness. However, if your stomach is upset due to stress, minor digestive issues or premenstrual syndrome, a light workout may you feel better. Avoid any high-intensity workouts or endurance cardio.

What Type of Exercises Are off Limits?

If you are feeling under the weather, certain exercises could put too much strain on your body, making you feel worse. Examples of high-intensity workouts that may cause too much strain include:

  • Lifting heavy weights
  • Doing endurance cardio
  • Jumping rope
  • Using resistance machines

The key to working out while sick is listening to your body and taking it slow. Opt for low-intensity workouts, such as:

  • Yoga
  • Dancing
  • Light bicycling
  • Walking
  • Jogging
  • Step aerobics
  • Swimming

If questioning whether a specific exercise will be too strenuous or not, try it out for a few minutes. If you feel your symptoms worsening or your body reacting negatively, do not continue. Instead, take a break, hydrate and cool down before trying a less intense exercise.

Returning to a Normal Exercise Routine After Illness

Nobody enjoys being sick. It's normal to feel restless and ready to get back to your daily routine. Here are a few things you should know before diving back into your regular exercise regime.

How to Tell When It's Okay to Return to Your Normal Workout Routine

Unfortunately, it can take longer than we would like to return to our normal workout routines after battling an illness. Instead of exercising while sick, wait until you have given your body the time it needs to recover and heal fully. Otherwise, you risk making your illness worse and irritating your existing symptoms. You should only return to your normal workout routine when you meet one or more of the following criteria:

  • You have finished any antibiotics or other prescribed medical treatment for contagious illnesses.
  • Your doctor has approved or recommended returning to your regular exercise routine.
  • You are no longer experiencing any symptoms of your non-contagious illness.
  • Your non-contagious symptoms remain but are becoming more manageable.
  • You have been gradually increasing the intensity and duration of your workouts.

Tips for Returning to Your Normal Exercise Routine

Follow these guidelines to make your transition back into your normal exercise routine as painless as possible:

  • Take a few extra days: Even when your symptoms are gone and you feel back to your old self again, it is best to give yourself a few days before returning to your regular workout routine. These extra few days give your body the time it needs to heal and recover from its illness completely. While you wait, focus on fueling your body with nutritious meals, drinking plenty of water and getting fresh air.
  • Take it slow: It's important to take things slow so you can test your body to see if it has fully recovered from illness, and to prevent any injury or strain that may bring your symptoms back. Before returning to the gym, consider testing the waters at home by taking your dog for a short walk or doing some light chores around the house. When you get to the gym, choose low-intensity exercises, and work your way up to exercising with moderate intensity for a longer duration. If you participate in high-endurance or interval training, ease into your normal routine over the course of several workouts, rather than jumping back in right away. 
  • Get plenty of rest: Rest days are crucial for successful exercise routines because they give your body time to recover and heal. If you are just getting over a cold or other illness, make sure you are taking regular rest days and getting plenty of quality sleep each night. 
  • Don't push yourself too hard: Challenging yourself physically and increasing your endurance and strength are excellent ways to promote a healthy, fit lifestyle. However, pushing yourself too hard during an exercise routine is never a good idea. It is especially harmful if you are recovering from an illness. Signs you are pushing yourself too hard might include the inability to catch your breath, lightheadedness or dizziness and immediate pain and muscle soreness that is concentrated in a single area.
  • Prevent future illness: To stay healthy and minimize your chances of getting sick again, make sure you are well-rested, eating a balanced diet, drinking plenty of water, washing your hands regularly, disinfecting fitness equipment before each use and avoiding contagious environments or people whenever possible. See your doctor at the first sign of illness to avoid worsening conditions.

Don't Let Sickness Get You Down

Dealing with sickness can be difficult, but as long as you give your body the time and space it needs to heal, you are sure to be back on your feet in no time. Instead of pushing yourself too hard, use this extra time to give your body the rest and relaxation it needs. When you are ready, the Gateway Region YMCA is waiting with support and encouragement, as well as a variety of fitness classespersonal training sessionscommunity health education and more.