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Should You Exercise While Sick?

Updated on July 13, 2011

Should you exercise when you are sick?  That depends on how you feel and what the illness is.  Assuming we are referring to the regular run-of-the-mill cold and flu or the usual ailments that plague us time and again during our lives, then it depends on the severity of your symptoms.

When you are sick, your body is placed under stress as your immune system attempts to fight off the infection.  By continuing to exercise, you are further burdening the body with induced stress.  Depending on how sick you are, the level of stress imposed upon your body may rise above your body’s ability to cope. 

If you have been exercising regularly, it can be difficult to forsake your regular workout routine and stay in bed.  Common concerns that arise from breaking the schedule are the difficulties of getting back into routine and the possible decline in form while sitting out on the bench (or rather lying in bed).  While there are times when it is okay to continue exercising even if you are sick, there are times when it is wiser to rest than to soldier on.

So when do you need to rest and when can you continue exercising?  Here are some general guidelines recommended by the health professionals:

4. Know your limits.

If you feel the need to exercise but aren’t up to your regular routine, tone it down.  Instead of running your usual five kilometres, consider walking for a shorter distance instead.  If your regular aerobics class is too high intensity, consider taking a more relaxing yoga or pilates class.

2. The presence or absence of fever.

The presence of fever is a definite reason to skip the workout.  When you have a fever, your internal body temperature is already raised above the normal level.  If you exercise, it further increases your internal body temperature which can make you feel worse. 

The recommendation is that if your fever is above 101 degrees Fahrenheit (38.3 degrees Celcius), then you should not exercise.

1. The “above the neck/below the neck” rule.

This is a commonly recommended method for assessing if you are fit to hit the gym or take a run around the block.  Generally if all you have are symptoms that are “above the neck”, such as a runny nose or a sore throat, then it is okay to continue exercising.  However, it is important to take your intensity down a notch or two.  Don’t expect to continue exercising to the level that you would if you were well. 

If your symptoms are “below the neck” - for instance, if you have chest congestion or body aches - then it might be better to rest a day or two.  You can resume your workout gradually as you begin to feel better.

3. Listen to your body.

Some people who have been exercising regular may feel worse if they stop exercising altogether.  If working out makes you feel better then do so.  Just don’t try to break any records exercising while you’re sick.

If you feel worse during the exercise or if your symptoms worsen after working out, your body is telling you that you need to take a break for a while and rest.

5. Exercise intensity.

In general, exercise of about 30 minutes a day, three to four times a week, does improve the body’s immunity by raising the levels of T-cells, one of the body’s first lines of defence against infection.  However, intense exercise programs similar to those performed by training athletes can have the opposite effect and lower immunity.  This is why it is important not to push yourself too hard if you exercise while sick.

6. Time out.

Be aware that even something as minor as the flu can put you out of commission for as many as 10 days to two weeks.  Don’t try to rush back to your exercise routine or you could end up prolonging your time out and further delaying your return to your regular exercise program.

7. Gym etiquette.

An additional consideration to take into account if you do decide to exercise is that of the other people working out around you. Even if you feel well enough to continue exercising, be aware that you may be contagious and can possibly pass on your infection to other people working out at your gym.

If you exercise at a gym, bring a towel and use it to cover the surfaces that you touch. Wash your hands frequently and make sure you aren’t constantly blowing your nose, or coughing. You may also want to consider swapping your regular gym routine for a more isolated activity that minimises your contact with other people.


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    • webgain profile image

      webgain 6 years ago from Delhi, India

      i got this useful but in my opinion we must exercise while sick but a bit.