Getting sick is a bummer on all fronts. Being all sneezy and achy while feeling under the weather is no one’s idea of fun. And for those who like to stay active, the interruption to your fitness routine can be especially annoying. But can you work out when you’re sick?
According to TIME, exercise can help protect you from colds and flu year round. Moderate exercise, like 30 to 45 minutes of walking, jogging, or cycling per day can help ward off sickness, TIME notes. Working out when you're experiencing symptoms, however, is a different story.
“When you’re sick, your symptoms should really dictate whether or not you work out," Dr. Darria Long Gillespie, a Harvard and Yale-trained ER doctor and author of Mom Hacks, tells Bustle via email. "If you’re feeling mainly symptoms ‘from the neck up,’ like nasal congestion/runny nose or a sore throat, a workout can be helpful — just take it easy.”
Dr. Gillespie also suggests that a mild workout like an easy jog or bike ride can help clear up symptoms. But intense workouts should be avoided, especially in extreme heat or cold. Dr. Gillespie says, “if your symptoms are ‘from the shoulders down,’ such as shortness of breath, abdominal pain, or nausea/vomiting, it’s a good idea to take the day off and rest." Dr. Gillespie also recommends skipping your workout if you have full body symptoms like a fever or body aches.
Popular Science says that, in general, exercising when you’re body is fighting a bug won’t compromise your immune system. Dr. Bruce Barrett of the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health told Popular Science that up to 20 percent of flu infections don’t show any symptoms, so if you stay active regularly, you’ve probably worked out while your body was fighting off an illness at some point. “Up to half of rhinovirus infections are asymptomatic, so you never feel sick,” Dr. Barrett noted. So, while getting a workout in while you’re fighting off a cold probably won’t interfere with your immune system, exercising when you’re actively sick can be a little tricky, TIME reports.
Dr. Purvi Parikh, allergist/immunologist with Allergy & Asthma Network, tells Bustle via email that exercise is off limits if you have chest congestion or a persistent cough, or any kind of respiratory infection that makes it difficult to breathe deeply. "It is generally not a good idea to work out when you're sick ... and intense workouts may prolong illness," Dr. Parikh says. She further says that "You absolutely should not work out if your illness includes any breathing symptoms ... working out with respiratory symptoms can be dangerous."
Also, bear in mind that working out at the gym when you’re sick means that you might spread your illness, so it’s probably best to stay home until your symptoms have cleared up. And if you have the flu in particular, experts strongly advise staying home until you're better to avoid spreading the highly contagious virus, Healthline further notes.
Dr. Clare Rock, MBBCh, Assistant Professor of Medicine at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and Associate Hospital Epidemiologist at the John Hopkins Hospital, tells Bustle via email that it's good to remember that, if you just have a very mild cold (and nothing more serious) and you decide to workout, "Proper cough and sneeze etiquette is very important" wherever you're working out. "Have tissues to cough or sneeze into, and dispose of them straight after use." Dr. Rock further suggests that frequent hand washing is important, as is wiping down all your fitness equipment with a disinfectant wipe after use, so that you don't potentially spread germs.
So, when is it OK to get back to your workouts once you’re feeling well again after a major bout of seasonal sickness? Healthline says that it’s important to make a full recovery before hitting the weights or your yoga class if you have the flu, or any other symptoms that making working out a bad idea. As your symptoms begin to subside, you can slowly start reintroducing more activity into your routine, as long as you’re careful not to push too hard.
Once you’re ready to start working out again, start with shorter, low-intensity workouts, while making sure to stay hydrated, and gradually add to your workouts over time as you continue to recover. And if you’ve been under the care of a doctor, make sure to listen to your body, and check in with your healthcare provider before getting back up to speed.