When to Walk or Exercise If You Are Sick

Deciding Whether a Workout Will Do You Good With a Cold or Illness

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 for exercise when you are sick.

Sick With Above-the-Neck Symptoms—OK 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 easy workouts. These above-the-neck symptoms would include a runny nose, sinus congestion, post-nasal drip, or sneezing.

Walk 10 minutes at an easy pace. If you don't feel good at an easy pace, stop and just do stretching and flexibility exercises. These can make you feel better in general.

If you feel good after 10 minutes, continue. You can pick up the pace to a comfortable walk or run, but keep it in the moderate zone. It's not the day for high-intensity intervals or sprints, but it is good to get your blood moving. It's likely that this will also get the mucus moving in your nasal passages, so be sure to bring along lots of tissues or a cloth handkerchief.

You'll probably have a lot of drainage.

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.

Sick With Below-the-Neck Symptoms—Don't 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 a gastrointestinal illness, such as nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea tell you to stay home. 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.

If You Have a Fever—No Exercise

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.

Avoid Strenuous Exercise When Sick

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 skip them.

Don't Share Your Sickness

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.

When to Get Back to Walking and Exercise After Being Sick

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.

Sources:

Dick NA, Diehl JJ. Febrile Illness in the Athlete. Sports Health. 2014;6(3):225-231. doi:10.1177/1941738113508373.

Jaworski CA, Pyne DB. Upper Respiratory Tract Infections: Considerations in Adolescent and Adult Athletes. UpToDate.

Protect Against Colds With Exercise. American College of Sports Medicine. http://www.acsm.org/about-acsm/media-room/news-releases/2009/10/06/protect-against-colds-with-exercise.