Updated: Jun 27
If you’ve worked hard to build a consistent workout routine, you might not want to lose steam just because you’re sick. You may have also heard that working out can boost your immune system, which is supported in clinical studies. [*] But is it safe to exercise while sick? After all, exercise should be all about taking care of your wellness, and no goal is worth hurting yourself in the long term. Here’s what the science says.
Should You Exercise While Sick?
The short answer is yes and no. Exercise while sick can be safe with mild head colds, but much more detrimental if you have a more severe illness. Generally speaking, if you have a common cold with no fever, you’ll likely be able to practice mild to moderate activity. This could even help you open up your nasal passages and clear congestion, at least temporarily [*]
However, more serious illness could warrant completely avoiding exercise. An easy way to think about this is the “above the neck rule.” If you’re experiencing symptoms in your head only - like a runny nose or sneezing, you can engage in mild activity. If you’re experiencing symptoms in the rest of your body, like nausea, phlegmy cough, chest congestion, muscle pain, body aches, or diarrhea, you should skip the workout. [*]
The idea with this theory is that infections that affect you below the neck aren’t compatible with exercise, while symptoms above the neck are more conducive to activity. This rule of thumb is often used in clinical practice and forces you to consider your symptoms and check how you feel before acting.
Risks of Exercising While Sick
There are few risks to exercising while you have a mild sickness, like a head cold. However, if you choose to work out with more serious symptoms, there can be more dangerous risks. If you exercise while you have a fever, fatigue, or widespread muscle aches, you could make your symptoms worse. [*] Plus, a fever actually decreases your endurance, muscle strength, and coordination. This can increase your risk of injury during exercise. [*]
Having the flu or a stomach bug can cause dehydration. Working out during this time can make dehydration even worse, since you lose water via sweat during exercise. It may even prolong your sickness. [*] On the other end of the spectrum, having a persistent cough can impact your ability to work out. It can make it hard to get in deep breaths, causing your heart rate to rise and leaving you feeling fatigued and out of breath.
It’s also worth noting that things like the flu and stomach viruses are contagious. Going to the gym with these illnesses not only puts you in danger, but also risks the health of others.
*TRX All-in-One is considered on the best pieces of home workout equipment for total body training.
How to Safely Exercise While Sick
If you have an above the neck illness, like a mild cold or sore throat, earache, or stuffy nose, exercise is generally safe. A good rule of thumb is to cut the intensity and duration of your workout in half to ensure you don’t overexert yourself. If you feel good afterward, you might slightly increase your workout on the next day, and so on. [*]
You can aim to simply stay active throughout the day rather than going through an intensive workout. Going for a light walk is typically suitable regardless of your symptoms. You may bump it up to a brisk walk or bike ride if you feel up to it. Some research suggests that moderate activities such as these have no effect on the severity or duration of the common cold. [*]
Ultimately, you can exercise while sick, but be sure to listen to your body and take care of yourself. If a brisk walk feels like it’s exhausting you quicker than normal, slow down or take a few days off. Don’t sweat the missed workouts - just be sure to track them in an exercise journal (or however you like) so that you can adjust your plan and get back on track once you’ve recovered. If you need additional tools to help you keep track of your health journey, like meal planners and yoga logs, check out our Etsy store.
*The NordicTrack T-series Treadmill is considered one of the best treadmills for walking and running.
Best Home Workout Equipment of 2022 [*]:
Best Home Equipment For Total Body Training: TRX All-in-One Suspension Training
Best Home Equipment For Running And Walking: NordicTrack T Series Treadmill
Best Home Equipment For Strength Training: Flybird Adjustable Dumbbells
Best Home Workout Equipment For Rowers: Hydrow Rower