exercising while sick
Healthy Living

Will Exercising While Sick Make You Sicker?

Jan 15 2024

Getting regular exercise is an important part of staying healthy. However, during cold and flu season, exercising often can be challenging when you’re feeling under the weather, or if the actual weather is less than ideal. You might be tempted to get in a workout even if you’re not feeling well – but could exercising while sick make you sicker?

The short answer is a little vague: it depends. There are some symptoms and illnesses where you can still safely work up a sweat – although it’s recommended that you reduce the intensity of your workout. However, exhibiting certain symptoms means physical activity is a no-no.

Exercising while sick

“Mild exercise while feeling under the weather can be perfectly fine as long as you listen to your body,” Rishi K. Bala, MD, CAQSM, RMSK, a primary care provider at Bon Secours Sports Medicine & Primary Care, shares. “Symptoms above the neck are a go, while symptoms in the lungs or chest are a no-go. It’s also important to self-test for COVID-19, as this can present initially as a cold.”

So, if your symptoms are above the neck, like nasal congestion or a sore throat, mild exercise is acceptable and likely won’t make you feel worse. In fact, getting outside or hopping on a treadmill for a slow run or a walk might actually make you feel better.

What type of exercise is OK?

Again, exercise is acceptable if your symptoms are in your throat or head and you’re feeling up to it. However, consider bringing the intensity down to a more manageable level. If you plan to go for a run, consider walking or slowing your pace as well as shortening your distance. Choose lighter weights for a strength training session.

Additionally, choosing a workout with lower impact, such as yoga or Pilates, is better than high-intensity interval training, or HIIT, because your immune system is already working hard to fight off whatever ails you. Don’t feel the need to “power through” a workout – you’ll still see results and benefits even if you don’t go as hard as you would when you’re well. Always listen to your body when exercising while sick.

When to wait

Once your symptoms move below your neck, such as chest congestion, fatigue, muscle aches, gastrointestinal issues or a constant cough, it’s best to sit this session out to focus on recovery. These symptoms may be a sign of an infection, a contagious virus or another illness that might be worsened with exercise.

Frequent coughing can keep you from being able to take a deep breath. It can also lead to shortness of breath and fatigue, which could make you dizzy or lightheaded. Additionally, respiratory infections might worsen with exercise because your airways are irritated or filled with fluid, which exercise can exacerbate.

Gastrointestinal issues are another time to hold off on exercise. Stomach bugs, stomach flu and other issues that affect your digestive system are usually made worse by exercise. If you do feel the need to move, light stretching is OK.

Many of these conditions are contagious, so even if you do choose to do something light, avoid the gym or other places where you could spread viruses to others.

What not to do

There are some things you should never do when exercising while sick. Generally, if you have any contagious illness, you should avoid the gym and other indoor workout spaces where you could get others sick, as well as participating in team sports.

If you have the flu or COVID-19, whether mild or severe, you are at a higher risk for dehydration. This can be a serious issue on its own, not to mention the potential for prolonging your illness.

You should also skip your workout any time you have a fever, which is typically a sign that you have an infection of some sort. Not only are fevers commonly accompanied by other symptoms that are bad for exercise, like weakness, body aches and a loss of appetite, but they can also lead to dehydration and risk of injury.

While it’s also not recommended to exercise when you have gastrointestinal issues, such as nausea, diarrhea or vomiting, you should never get into a swimming pool with these symptoms. Bacteria associated with some of these symptoms could contaminate the pool water. Specifically, if you have diarrhea, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends you avoid getting back in the pool for two weeks after you’ve recovered.

Tips for exercising while sick

There are still plenty of things you can do to move while you’re under the weather. If you feel up to exercising while sick, consider these tips to stay safe and feel the best you can:

  • Stay hydrated: It’s important for anyone who is feeling unwell to drink plenty of water. Since you lose water when you exercise, this becomes especially necessary if you choose to work out when you’re sick.
  • Sweat less: This goes with staying hydrated. Avoid losing more water by doing lower-intensity workouts.
  • Try at-home workouts: While it’s especially important to stay home when you have a contagious illness to avoid getting others sick, opting for an at-home workout means that if you do end up feeling worse, you’re already home and can rest or get more water.
  • Dress in layers: It’s recommended to dress in layers for an outdoor workout, such as walking or running. However, if you’re exercising while sick, this is more important because your body temperature can heat up or cool down faster than normal.
  • Plan your return to activity: If you do skip your workout when you’re sick, be sure to gradually return to your normal activity once you recover. Jumping back into your regular exercise routine can be too intense and lead to injury.

When to see your doctor

There’s an old saying that you can “sweat out a virus,” but it’s not based on fact. While some light or reduced-intensity activity can relieve some symptoms, many others can worsen or lead to other new symptoms. Always listen to your body when you attempt to exercise while you’re sick.

However, if you feel like you’re not improving, develop new symptoms, your condition worsened or you just want to know if it’s safe to exercise while sick, reach out to your health care provider. And if you’re recovering from a prolonged or serious illness, consider making an appointment with your doctor so they can evaluate your condition and recommend the best course of action for returning to a regular fitness routine.

Learn about the primary care services we provide at Bon Secours. 

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