Are You Too Sick to Work Out? Maybe Not

It's the debate we've all faced: Hit the gym or sit it out. Here's what to consider

Katie Koerner—Getting sick is a part of life. It’s gotten us out of school, ruined our best friend’s Vegas Bachelorette Party (just me?), and has the ability to stop up noses and wake us up in the middle of the night. Adults average about two or three respiratory infections per year! Let’s face it — colds (or worse, the flu!) stink. But the question remains: Should we try sweat out the sickness, or lay low until it’s left our system? Research varies, but most data suggests scaling back that workout schedule to give the body the rest it needs to make a full recovery [1].

Wash Those Hands—Why it Matters

Studies suggest that even before getting sick, regular to moderate exercise can help us build resistance to catching colds. But beware: Studies also warn that prolonged periods of intense exercise may actually weaken the immune system, increasing risk of infection[2][3].

But when it’s too late for precautionary workouts and that cold or flu has taken full grip, some studies suggest exercise could actually help. One study found that individuals with the flu who continued to exercise saw a decrease in symptoms and lessened inflammation[4]. Another study suggests short but intense periods of exercise at the beginning stages of the flu may help decrease lung inflammation[5]. An additional study found that those who exercised with viral upper respiratory infections did not see an increase in length or severity of their illness, compared to those who did not exercise at all while sick[6].

Drop That Tissue and Give me 20—The Answer and Debate

If symptoms are above the neck (think runny nose or sore throat), it’s typically okay to continue working out, as exercising may even temporarily clear those sinuses and provide relief[7]. However, if there’s an issue below the neck (think cough, body aches, chest congestion, or stomach issues), it’s best to wait it out. There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to working out sick, so evaluate the intensity of symptoms and err on the side of caution to prevent from feeling even worse.

Working out regardless of the cold? Lower the intensity of a normal workout. Try stretching and/or yoga, taking a long walk with the pup, or some light strength training. Sick days are bound to come around, so if the idea of attempting any form of exercise seems like the equivalent of climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, take a break, put those hardworking feet up, and catch up on that favorite TV show.

Works Cited

1. Current perspective on exercise immunology. Nieman, D.C., Department of Health & Exercise Science, Appalachian State University, Boone, NC. Current Sports Medicine Reports, 2003 Oct;2(5):239-42. []

2. Chronic exercise training effects on immune function. Mackinnon, L.T. School of Human Movement Studies, The University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 2000 Jul;32(7 Suppl):S369-76. []

3. Acute exercise effects on the immune system. Rowbottom, D., G., Green, K.J., School of Human Movement Studies, Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, Australia. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 2000 Jul;32(7 Suppl):S396-405. []

4. Chronic exercise reduces illness severity, decreases viral load, and results in greater anti-inflammatory effects than acute exercise during influenza infection. Sim, Y.J., Yu, S., Yoon, K.J., et. al. Department of Immunobiology, College of Human Sciences, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. The Journal of Infectious Diseases, 2009 Nov 1;200(9):1434-42. []

5. Moderate exercise early after influenza virus infection reduces the Th1 inflammatory response in lungs of mice.Lowder, T., Padgett, D.A., Woods, J.A. Department of Kinesiology, University of Illinois and Urbana-Champaign, Urbana, IL. Exercise Immunology Review, 2006;12:97-111. []

6. Effect of exercise on upper respiratory tract infection in sedentary subjects. Weidner, T., Schurr, T. School of Physical Education, Ball State University, Muncie, IN. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 2003 Aug;37(4):304-6. []

7. Current perspective on exercise immunology. Nieman, D.C., Department of Health & Exercise Science, Appalachian State University, Boone, NC. Current Sports Medicine Reports 2003 Oct;2(5):239-42. []