When you’re feeling under the weather, you may wonder: is it better to sweat it out or rest and recover? Well, it depends. Finding the motivation to complete a workout is one thing—but other times, pushing yourself through a brisk run or power through a yoga class when you’re sick can hurt your body more than help. We talked to medical experts and professional trainers to find out whether you should work out when sick.
If you have a simple cold or cough . . . scale back on the intensity.
According to Dr. Alison Mitzner, if you have a minor cold, it’s okay to work out. “Often, you will feel better with mild exercise and it also boosts your immunity,” she continues. “People who are used to exercise and work out frequently usually feel better with exercise rather than stopping. You may just need to decrease the intensity a bit. You know your body best, so just don’t push it.”
Aaptiv trainer Candice Cunningham suggests strength exercises for those facing upper respiratory infections, since cardio will feel much harder. Fellow Aaptiv trainers, Jennifer Giamo and Jessica Muenster, agree. If you’ve got a sore throat or sinus pressure, consider a light-to-moderate workout to help ease symptoms, release bodily toxins, or break up congestion. And if you’ve got a runny rose, don’t skip your workout, but scale back and treat it more like an active recovery day.
That said, always give yourself permission to take a break. “Rest is very important when you’re struggling with a cold,” says Aaptiv trainer Kelly Chase. “Your immune system is compromised and therefore does not need the stress from high-energy workouts. However, a gentle workout such as a walk or even restorative yoga may be good during this time because it’s giving your body the energy it needs to heal.”
If you have a fever or the flu . . . skip the workout.
“The best advice is to not work out if your symptoms occur below the neck. This means not working out with a fever since you don’t want to increase your body temperature even further,” explains Jasmine Marcus, PT DPT. She’s right, and the so-called “neck check” is based on a study about exercising while ill.
Cunningham also recommends skipping exercise if you’re running a fever. That said, don’t assume the lack of a fever gives you the green light to work out when sick. “ Depending on what’s wrong, running outside in the cold or doing something to aggravate your immune system or make it fight harder may only set you back,” she notes. “Always consult your doctor if you have questions but never beat yourself up for taking a rest day if you don’t feel well. Listening to your body is key.”
“If you have a fever and/or the chills, it is always a good idea to rest and not work out until fully recovered,” says Ehsan Ali, MD. When your body has the flu, it’ll take three to five days for symptoms (such as chills, nausea, diarrhea and vomiting) to taper off. Do not exercise until you’re feeling better and you’ve been fever free for at least 24 hours.
“There are two main reasons I typically will not work out: when I’m fighting a serious cold or the flu,” says Muenster. “That’s because you’re spreading germs and then creating an environment to make others sick. Second, your body needs to focus on healing itself. If you are working out, then you’re using energy for exercise and your body cannot focus directly on healing.”
If you have aches and pains . . . listen to your body.
Giamo usually tells clients to try a workout, and if they start feeling bad after 15-20 minutes, then call it quits. In any workout, you’ll experience some discomfort associated with muscles being activated, but notice things like being unable to catch your breath or wheezing, as these are additional signs to stop what you’re doing.
“If you’re feeling fatigued or excessively tired, it’s better not to work out when sick,” says Dr. Ali. “Save your energy to allow for your body to feel better and recover.”
“Decide if you’re up for exercising, or would feel more comfortable reserving your energy,” offers Dr. Marcus. “Often times after resting for a few days when sick, people will realize they missed working out and will come back more determined than before.”