Should You Exercise When You Are Sick?

Coughing and Sneezing
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If you wake up with a runny nose, congestion, diarrhea, or fever, you may wonder whether to still do your workout. While you may think this is the perfect excuse to skip exercising, you also may have committed to training and don't want to get behind.

This is especially a factor if your symptoms linger or progress for several days. You may be facing a looming race day and wonder whether you'll be able to participate. Learn what experts say is safe and appropriate and whether you should exercise when you're sick.

Should You Exercise When You’re Sick?

If you're in the middle of training season for a race, it may be difficult to skip a workout, even if you're feeling under the weather. Generally, if your symptoms are above the neck (cold symptoms such as a runny nose or scratchy throat), exercise should be fine. If you feel symptoms below the neck, or have a fever, it's a good idea to slow down or skip your workout altogether.

When It's Safe to Exercise

If your symptoms are all above the neck, you are safe to walk, bike, jog, or do gym workouts at an easy to moderate pace or to do other easy workouts. The following symptoms are likely OK to work out with:

  • Earache: A minor earache is generally fine to work out with, especially if you don't have an ear infection. If your ear pain isn't accompanied by a fever or loss of balance, working out—with caution—is doable.
  • Mild cold: A mild cold may include an irritated throat, nasal congestion, or sneezing, and is considered fine to work out with as long as you take it easy and lower your workout intensity.
  • Mild sore throat: Working out with a mild sore throat is doable; drinking water throughout your fitness session is a helpful way to ease some throat irritation.
  • Stuffy or runny nose: When working out with a stuffy or runny nose, remember to stay hydrated. A short workout may even help alleviate some of the nasal discomfort.

Start by walking for 10 minutes at an easy pace. If this doesn't feel good, stop, and just do stretching and flexibility exercises. These can make you feel better in general.

If you feel good after 10 minutes, continue with your workout. You can pick up the pace to a comfortable walk or run, but keep your effort in the moderate zone.

How to Exercise Safely When You're Sick

If you do decide to keep to your training schedule while sick, follow these tips to help get through your workout.

Avoid Strenuous Exercise

When you're sick, skip high-intensity intervals or sprints. It is a myth that you can sweat out a cold or fever. You need to back away from intense exercise even if you have only cold symptoms, but especially if you have a fever or chest symptoms.

Your immune system needs to focus on your illness and it can be impaired, at least briefly, by strenuous exercise. Keep any workouts in the easy-to-moderate range (or just rest).

Don't Infect Others

Be a good sport—don't share your cold. Even if all of your symptoms are above the neck, stay away from the gym where you'll be spreading your germs. Avoid groups of people. Don't sneeze on your walking or running partner.

Wash your hands often when you have a cold, especially if you have to share your space with others. Use warm water and soap. Scrub your hands gently with the soap while singing the "ABC" song to yourself—that is the right amount of time for sudsing. Then rinse. Turn off the faucet with a paper towel—faucet handles and doorknobs are often the dirtiest part of a restroom.

If you don't have access to soap and water, use hand sanitizer. It's wise to carry a small bottle of sanitizer in your walking pack or gym bag.

Listen to Your Body

Before you step out for a run or roll out the mat for a floor exercise, check in with yourself. Pay attention to your symptoms and how you're feeling. If you're feeling too sick—before you even begin the workout—skip it. It's best to take a break and give your body proper time to recover than push it past its limits.

If You're Sick on Race Day

If it's race day and you have a cold with only above-the-neck symptoms, you don't have to be a no-show. It's possible to walk or run a 5K, 10K, or half-marathon with a head cold, as long as you have no fever or lung congestion.

Your goal should simply be to finish rather than setting a personal record. You can also check to see if you can downgrade to a lower distance, such as the 10K if you registered for a half-marathon.

When Not to Exercise

If you have any symptoms below the neck, such as a hacking cough, diarrhea, upset stomach, or swollen lymph glands, you should not exercise. If your lungs are feeling congested, you need to skip your workout.

Symptoms of gastrointestinal illness, such as nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, mean you should stay home and rest.

You can get dehydrated easily if you are experiencing those symptoms. It might break your streak of logging 10,000 steps per day on your Fitbit, but these symptoms are a good excuse to not exercise.

  • Fever: If you have a fever, chills, or body aches, do not exercise. You are too sick for a workout. You may have an infectious disease that you shouldn't take with you to the gym to share with others. You need to rest and monitor your symptoms so you can consult your doctor if warranted.
  • Flu symptoms: Body aches, fever, chills, and headaches—all symptoms of the flu—are good reasons to skip your workout. Dehydration often accompanies the flu, so you'll want to pause your training while you recover.
  • Productive cough: Also known as a wet cough, a productive cough produces mucus. When you're coughing up phlegm, that's your indication to take a rest day and focus on hydrating.
  • Stomach symptoms: Stomach pain and discomfort, along with nausea, vomiting, cramping, or diarrhea, are all reasons to skip a workout session. When you're experiencing diarrhea or vomiting, your body is already dehydrated. Take a pause and let your symptoms improve before resuming activity.

When to Resume Exercise

After a bad cold, give yourself three to four days to get back up to full speed. Ease back into it with shorter workouts at slow speed, and keep up your stretching and flexibility exercises. After a bout of the flu or other infections, give yourself at least a week to recover.

If you've had a more-than-mild case of the flu, you're likely dehydrated, so you'll want to give your body proper time to get back to pre-illness hydration levels before taking it out for a hard workout.

While taking time off is important, easing back into your fitness routine is also significant. Taking too much time off from exercise can lead to a decline in fitness, so while you want to give your body time to recover, you can begin to slowly increase your physical activity.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why are you so tired after exercising while sick?

Studies have shown that when you are ill and have a fever, you are likely also dehydrated, have lost fluids, and have a loss in muscle strength. If you're working out while sick, the exhaustion from physical activity feels even more significant since your body already feels weaker.

Should you exercise when you're starting to feel sick?

As long as your initial symptoms are above the neck—runny nose, mild sore throat, or minor cold—you can exercise while feeling the onset of sickness.

A Word From Verywell

Staying active is a great way to boost the immune system and ward off illness. If you're sick, you're generally safe to continue working out if your symptoms are above the neck, although you may want to ease up on the intensity until you feel better. The most important thing you can do is to always listen to your body and adjust your activity based on what you feel you're able to do.

2 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Mathur P. Hand hygiene: back to the basics of infection controlIndian J Med Res. 2011;134(5):611–620. doi:10.4103/0971-5916.90985

  2. Dick NA, Diehl JJ. Febrile illness in the athlete. Sports Health. 2014;6(3):225-31. doi:10.1177/1941738113508373

By Wendy Bumgardner
Wendy Bumgardner is a freelance writer covering walking and other health and fitness topics and has competed in more than 1,000 walking events.