Should you Exercise while Sick?

Stuffy nose. Foggy head. Sore throat. Bad cough. Fever. Body aches. Cold and flu season is in full swing here in the U.S.

What constitutes too sick to workout?

A lot of times people that are into fitness or athletics will ignore their illnesses and continue to workout anyway. But is that safe?

Some experts say yes. As long as the sickness is above the chest.

Honestly if you feel like crap and can’t even imagine having a good workout, then maybe skip the gym or your run for the day.

BUT- if you feel like you can manage it, a light workout may help you to feel more like yourself.

I have definitely worked out/ran when I was under the weather and it did not feel good, nor did it help me to heal. I have since learned how to best listen to my body and I want to share some tips with you on how to listen to your body’s signals.

I am not here to try to tell you what to do, but I do want to help you to determine if it is a good idea to go to that spin class when you have a fever.

First- here’s the “dirty” on germs, bugs, and bacteria (thanks Marquette for teaching me a few things ;)).

Every single day our bodies are fighting off attacks from bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites that are trying to weasel their way into our bodies. Most of the bugs invade the upper respiratory tract which cause illnesses like the common cold, flu, throat, and ear infections. Luckily for us, our immune systems are pretty strong and can fight off attackers. Immune cells from the bone marrow and thymus fend off the invaders by interacting with them in the spleen, lymph nodes, and mucus membranes. This means that the bugs often come into contact with your mouth, gut, lungs, and urinary tract first.

So now the question we ask is “Can the body fight off these offenders while sick?

Well, first we should note that there is a difference between moving your body in an easy-medium effort and participating in an intense workout routine. Pushing your body to the max during a strenuous workout awakens a stress response in the body. This stress response can be easily adapted to when the body is healthy, and even increases fitness levels in the long term.

But what happens when the body has been weakened by illness?

Our bodies may not be able to withstand the stressors of an intense workout.

BUT- don’t throw in the towel yet! You can still participate in low intensity workouts while you are sick (if you so desire). Low vs. high intensity varies from person to person so use your own perceived level of exertion as a guide.

Here is why you shouldn’t participate in HIGH intensity, vigorous exercises while sick.

One prolonged workout session, such as a marathon, can depress the immune system for up to 72 hours, making the body more susceptible to invasion by bacteria/viruses, etc.

On the other hand- one easy-moderate brief intensity workout has been shown to boost the immune system in health people.

So here’s the bottom line: If you are sick, your body is fighting off an infection, thus is under a large amount of stress. If you workout on top of that already high stress level you would put your body into overdrive.

Avoid exercise if you have a fever, muscle pain, joint pain, fatigue/malaise, diarrhea, vomiting, etc. Activities to avoid include high intensity interval training, high intensity sports/team sports, intense endurance training, sprint training, heavy lifting, etc.

If you have more mild symptoms such as a sore throat, runny nose, a cough, etc. you can most likely still engage in light exercise/ activity. When you are sick it is preferable to exercise outdoors if the weather is suitable, otherwise you can do some mild exercise indoors. If you are sick/recovering from an illness try activities such as yoga, walking, light jogging, light biking, swimming, pilates, etc.

At the end of the day, only you can decide what is best for your body. Remember- no two bodies are the same. Some people feel better after doing light exercise with mild illness, while others may feel worse. Be sure to consult your doctor with any questions you have in regards to this topic as I am not a medical professional, and am speaking from my own education and personal experience.

Also, try not to feel guilty if you have to take a couple of days off the gym or your regular workout routine if you are sick. You will come back stronger after giving your body time to rest and rejuvenate. Another important note to consider is that if you are coughing/sneezing all over the place and touching all of the equipment at the gym without wiping things down, etc, your other gym goers may not be too happy with you!

Do you exercise while sick? What are your favorite activities to do when you are coming back from an illness and trying to get back into it?

41 comments on “Should you Exercise while Sick?”

  1. There have been several instances when I have felt sick, and a good workout actually made me feel a little bit better and like myself! But I agree with you that it’s important to listen to your body and if you really feel like you can’t even get out of bed, definitely a good idea to just skip the workout! Better to give your body the chance to rest up and recover and come back strong!

    1. Totally agree with you Kayla- we really have to tune into our own bodies to learn what will be best for us!

  2. I agree- I think it definitely comes down to really listening to your body and what it’s telling you! Sometimes I feel up to it and a workout actually helps to make me feel better, but other times my body really just needs the rest. It’s also good to remember that you can tone your work-out down too.. sometimes a simple walk outside for fresh air can help to make you feel a little more human when you’re sick!

    1. So true! We can still move our bodies without doing anything crazy intense!

  3. abbey sharp says:

    This is a great article, with some really important information. I try not to work out when I’m sick unless it’s a very minor cough, I think it’s important not too put more stress on your body while it’s trying to recover.

    1. Thanks Abbey! I definitely agree that we need to give our bodies time to recover!

  4. Mikki says:

    I have always wondered about this. I usually don’t feel like working out, but sometimes when it’s just a really bad head cold or something..
    Thanks for sharing this information.

    1. I used to wonder if it was safe, but often felt better after a light workout when I had a cold/ something milk. Thanks for reading Mikki!

  5. Great post! I take it on a case by case basis – if I’ve just got an annoying cold, a nice walk outside or even a lower impact group fitness class is great. But if I’ve got something more serious or the cold is making me feel run down, I like to take the time to relax.

    1. I think that is the best way to do it! Gotta learn to listen to our bodies!

  6. I don’t get sick very often but I do think it makes me feel better to move and sweat in some way while I have a cold.It certainly helps with cramp days

    1. Totally with you on those cramp and cold days! Always helps me feel better!

  7. There’s definitely a fine line here. If I’m really, super sick, then I definitely won’t push it. But moving can sometimes make me feel loads better.

    1. Sometimes it can be difficult to know which side of the line you are on!

  8. Allyson says:

    I really appreciate that this blog was well-researched. I personally lean to not working out when I’m sick–I will go for a walk, though. But generally I let my body heal itself when I’m under the weather.

    1. Thanks Allyson! I love moving even just a little bit while sick!

  9. Cassandra says:

    This article is timely. I’ve been sick with that stomach virus all week and had to take a break from my tri training. I think you really have to know yourself. When you’re body is tired rest and don’t jump back in too fast or you’ll just run yourself down even more. I’m looking forward to slowly getting back to my routine next week.

    1. I was inspired to write this because I had a bad stomach bug 2 weeks ago! I think tuning into your own body is key here as well! Hope you are starting to feel better!

  10. It’s definitely always best to listen to your body and rest if you feel that’s what you need!

    1. We are on the same page Jessica!

  11. Sarah says:

    Good question and a big debate when we’re feeling under the weather. As we rarely get sick it’s really hard.

  12. Carmy says:

    I usually work out gently (i.e. yoga) if I’m just a bit sick. Anything too intense and I rather stay in bed and recovery!

    1. Love doing yoga when I am recovering from an illness!

  13. I have so much trouble with this! I have noticed that taking time off and relaxing does actually help with my body feeling better.

    1. I used to have a hard time with that as well but now I know that the rest can really help my body!

  14. Emily says:

    It’s so amazing how our bodies are made to withstand certain stressors, and a light workout will actually help in some cases, but a long workout won’t help. We are incredibly designed. . . I love how you broke it down, the pros, the cons, and such, because I think these are things I need to think about when I’m sick and thinking about doing a workout.

    1. It is so interesting to learn about how our bodies respond to stress! I think a lot of people automatically assume that stress is a bad thing, but it can actually be good for our bodies!!

  15. Esther says:

    Great post!
    So important to think about with our bodies. A few days off to rest and recover sounds like a much better plan to me. I hate when I am at the gym and I can tell others are sick and passing their germs along. If I feel a workout will help me I at least take it away from others! 🙂

    1. Germs at the gym are the worst! I always wash my hands before and after I am done to help prevent getting sick!

  16. jill conyers says:

    Even when I’m sick, if I feel like exercising I do. If not, I don’t. Our bodies are really good about letting us know what we should and shouldn’t do. We just have to listen.

    1. Listening to our bodies is key! Thanks for that reminder Jill!

  17. I agree with what other people have said! If I’m not too sick, a good workout helps me feel better and more like myself. If I’m really weak and feel awful, though, forcing myself to move wouldn’t be great. Definitely comes down to trying to figure out what would be best for your body!

    1. Totally agree Liv- everyone has to figure out what works best for them!

  18. GiGi Eats says:

    Some can do it. Some can’t. I am the type of person who certainly can and will work out when she is sick. I might do a little less intense of a work out, but I still do it and tell myself that I can rest afterwards! The joys of working from home 😉

    1. I definitely can workout when I am sick too- unless its an illness keeping me bedridden lol! Working from home sounds like a nice gig!

  19. Sarah says:

    I’m one of the stubborn ones and actually did this today. I felt like I got hit by a truck on Friday night with a head cold and took the weekend off since we were at my parents and didn’t want to run in the cold and couldn’t even get up. Today though I pushed it and just did the something is better than nothing and my barre instructor was impressed. My family and I rarely get sick but this year is different and these colds are brutal and we aren’t use to it or slowing down. Now if I was dealing with a tummy bug I wouldn’t have worked out.

    1. The bugs going around this year are so bad! I usually never get sick and was knocked on my butt for 4 days in december! Hope you are feeling better now and that the workout helped you feel better!

  20. Chrissy says:

    I’m in the boat of listening to your body. If it’s a minor illness, maybe a good workout will do you good. But if you are down and out sick, your body needs rest. Pick it back up when you are feeling better.

    1. Glad we share the same thought process Chrissy!

  21. I try to listen to my body and don’t push it. I’ve learned that from years of pushing too hard and paying for it though! Not worth it!

    1. Sometimes we have to learn the hard way! Not fun, but needs to be learned.

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