Exercise, General Health, Q&A

Is it OK To Exercise When I have a Cold?

(Also appeared in LA Jewish Home 1/12/2022 p.34)

Before the ink dried on my own new year’s fitness resolutions, the universe conspired to give me a one-two punch right back into bed with a cold. That got me thinking about the time back in college when I saw others “push through” a cold with exercise. My try at the same routine, back then, landed me in the infirmary with a case of mono. So, is it a good idea to work out when you’re sick or not?

The answer is clear – yes and no!  Now that fitness is my career, I see a lot of objective differences between “working out” and physically moving the body, and it’s not just because “your workout is my warm-up.” [I don’t actually say that.] Seriously though, intensity is subjective and relative to the individual and also plays a role in the decision of whether you should work out with a cold and at what intensity if you do. Whether or not it’s advisable to work out also depends on your cold symptoms.

A workout that makes you breathe heavily, sweat, and work hard to the point of some discomfort, awakens a stress response in the body. When we’re healthy, it is precisely the adaptation to that stress in a progressive way that makes us stronger. Healthy bodies can adapt to that stress. However, the stress of this intense workout can overwhelm the immune system. This isn’t generally recommended when you’re sick. When you train hard, your body needs to repair the muscles that have been worked and this can further weaken your immune system. 

Some find that lower intensity movement including things like:

  • Walking (preferably outdoors)
  • Leisurely biking or swimming
  • Some types of Yoga or T’ai Chi

…can boost immunity and help you recover faster (unless you are out of shape and/or have other stressors). Let your own perceived level of exertion be your guide in determining what is low intensity. 

What shapes this recommendation is the scientific research which shows that when a healthy person exercises consistently and moderately, it strengthens immunity over time. Unusual, infrequent, sudden high intensity, or long-duration sessions can hamper immunity. Even more so, you should take it easy when sick. 

Besides your current fitness level and consistency, consider what other stressors you may be facing on a given day. Anxiety, relationship stress, financial, career, environmental (hot/cold temperature outside), diet, sleep quantity and quality, age, obesity, and many emotional and physical health issues all play a part in your immunity and resilience.

I typically tell clients: Don’t exercise if you have a fever, widespread muscle aches, or fatigue; if your symptoms are “below the neck”—like diarrhea, upset stomach, chest congestion, or hacking cough.

However, it may be ok to exercise if your signs and symptoms are all “above the neck” — symptoms such as sneezing, nasal congestion, runny nose, or minor sore throat. If you choose to exercise when you have a mild cold, I recommend that you reduce the intensity and length of your workout so as not to risk more serious injury or illness. Also, be considerate and don’t contaminate others. Avoid the gym or other public places.

Listen to what your body is telling you! If you feel miserable, take a day off or even a week off. The few days won’t really affect performance. 

Be sure to resume your normal routine gradually as you start to feel better. For instance, if you were sick for 3 days, consider taking 3 days to ease back in. Check with your doctor if you’re still unsure if it’s OK to work out.

If you’re healthy and want to prevent getting sick, the good news is that consistent, moderate exercise most days of the week is preventive for illness. Manage your stress and recovery, especially if you exercise with intensity. Wash your hands.

References:

Laskowski, Edward R. M.D. Exercise and illness: Work out with a cold?

(June 18, 2011) Retrieved from:http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/exercise/AN01097

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