You’ve just gotten the hang of your new workout routine. You can see the progress you’ve made and the changes taking shape in your body.
You’re keen to keep going, and finally achieve those goals! They’re so close you can feel it.
Then it happens…
You wake up with a stuffy nose, a headache and a sore throat. Oh no! Looks like you’re coming down with something, and your next questions is: “can I exercise when I’m sick?”
Do you need to cancel your workout?
Unfortunately, the answer to your question isn’t a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’. It’s: it depends.
On what, you may ask? Largely on your symptoms.
The general rule of thumb, confirmed by the Mayo Clinic, is that if every one of your symptoms is above the neck, you’re likely O.K. to carry on exercising1. That means that if your symptoms include a runny nose, sneezing, earache, sinusitis, or a minor sore throat, you can exercise.
There are some adjustments to make, however, as the most important thing to do when your body is fighting an infection is to take it easy and let yourself rest. It’s best to do a slow, moderate workout instead of a high intensity one until you feel better. Check in with your general energy levels to determine the level of intensity you can manage; and, if it so happens that you don’t feel up to working out on any particular occasion when you’re a little under the weather, listen to your body and take that day to rest.
On the other hand, the warning signs of when to lay off the exercise entirely are when you find symptoms that aren’t isolated to the areas of your body above the level of your neck. Nausea, a cough, body aches and pains, a fever, diarrhea and congestion mean you need to cancel your workout until the symptoms clear or become isolated to the head above the level of the neck2. In this case, rest up and recover!
Another factor to consider when you hope to push through the sniffles and take part in your regular routine is the impact it will have on your immune system.
Your immune system is hard at work…
It’s not the best idea to push your immune system to its maximum limits - and, that’s what may happen if you take part in a strenuous exercise routine when you’re down with a cold.
Your immune system is already fighting off whatever bug has invaded your system and then, as if the immune system needs added pressure during this time, your workout reduces its capacity to perform.
Of course, any exercise is great for your body and health, overall3,4. Exercise does, however, impact immunity for the hours immediately following a workout5,6,7, which the body can generally handle but is definitely something to consider during illness.
For this reason, it’s also encouraged to ease back into your routine with care once you start to feel better. If you suddenly go back to your normal level of intensity, and those bugs are still in your system - no matter how weakened they are - they may be able to bounce back and put your health on a rollercoaster. It can leave you feeling like you’re at increased risk of catching something when, in fact, it’s the same infection your immune system is simply unable to eradicate effectively because of the dedication to your workout8.
How to ensure your workout is benefiting your body
When you simply can’t miss a day in the gym, here’s a few alternatives to your regular routine for you to try:
- A comprehensive stretching session. Imagine how great you will feel once you do go back to your standard workouts if you focus on stretching and lengthening your muscles on the days you’re exercising caution. It can help you to bounce back into your workout routine and mitigate the risk of injury.
- Yoga9,10. Just like stretching, yoga is great for lengthening and stretching your muscles. Yoga has the added benefit of improving your strength without intensity, particularly in slower, flow-type yoga. Yoga is a great workout to do when you’re not feeling sick, too; it can make you fitter and stronger than you may realise.
- Using exercise bands. A low strength exercise band can be added to your stretch session to increase the resistance on your tissues, which can simulate intensity without actually being too intense. Low reps, done with precision can be just as great a workout as a high intensity one.
- Walking, swimming or cycling. A brisk walk, a swim or a cycle can all be low intensity exercises you can take part in if you feel up to it. Watch your heart rate during these exercises. If you start to feel your heart beating hard in your chest, step back a notch. You don’t want to stress this vital organ when there’s a virus roaming around your body.
In general, remember the following about working out when you’re under the weather:
- Rest is best for recovery.
- Symptoms above the level of the neck means exercise is A-okay!
- Any general symptoms or those below the level of the neck suggests you should cancel your gym session.
- When you do exercise, keep the intensity low until you recover fully from your symptoms.
- Exercise at home where you can, or maintain excellent hygiene practices should you choose to exercise in a public place.
- Listen to your body; no exercise routine is more important than your health!
- Laskowski, E. Is it OK to exercise if I have a cold? Mayo Clinic. 2017.
- Exercise and febrile illnesses. Paediatr Child Health. 2007. 12(10):885-92.
- Booth F., et al. Lack of exercise is a major cause of chronic diseases. Compr Physiol. 2012. 2(2):1143-211.
- Colberg, S., et al. Exercise and type 2 diabetes: the American College of Sports Medicine and the American Diabetes Association: joint position statement. Diabetes Care. 2010. 33(12):e147-67.
- Freidenreich, D., & Volek, J. Immune responses to resistance exercise. Exerc Immunol rev 2012. 18:8-41.
- Gleeson, M., et al. Exercise Immunology. 2013. Routledge.
- Batatinha, H., et al. Nutrients, immune system, and exercise: Where will it take us? Nutrition. 2019. 61:151-156.
- Dick, N., & Diehl, J. Febrile Illness in the Athlete. Sports Health. 2014. 6(3): 225–231.
- Falkenberg, R., et al. Yoga and immune system functioning: a systematic review of randomized controlled trials. J Behav Med. 2018. 41: 467.
- Govindaraj, R., et al. Yoga and physical exercise – a review and comparison. International Review of Psychiatry. 2016. 28(3):242-253.