Should You Workout When You’re Sick?

In my last blog - 10 Tips to Survive the Holidays Without Adding a Few Extra Pounds -, I gave you some tips how to get through the holidays without compromising your hard-won health and fitness achievements. One tip that really seemed to resonate with you guys is to stay active and keep crushing your gym routine.

But what if you’re sick? I know you hate to miss a day, but is it a good idea to keep training when you’ve got a cold or flu coming on? Besides infecting everyone else at the gym, what’s the harm?

Well the good news is, fit people shake off viruses far quicker than couch potatoes. So, you’ve already set yourself up to enjoy milder symptoms and a speedier recovery. But that doesn’t mean you should be stubborn and just plough through the sore throat and sniffles.

So, can you work out while you’re sick? Short answer – it depends. Here’s how it breaks down.

Stay home if you think you are contagious.

Bugs love to be in warm places so if you have a virus, it will spread like wildfire through a hot, sweaty gym. And it's a big no-no to infect others. Trust me when I say that nobody wants to catch what you’re carrying: not at work, nor any of your friends, nor patrons at gym. You won't make friends if you put yourself first and ignore the health of others. Karma is a bitch.

I know you might have to lose a sick/personal/vacation day while you recover. I get that you might not make money, and that’s a bummer. But staying at home and resting will get you back on your feet far faster than burying your (throbbing) head in the sand. Yes, you might miss a workout session and lose some of the routine and rhythm you’ve been working so hard to build. But I know from experience that you’ll get it back so much better once you are 100 percent again.

Sweat it out or rest?

If you’re coming down with a garden-variety head cold – the watery-eyed, blocked nose type where all your symptoms are above the neck – you should be fine to work out. Just choose low-impact activities like walking, light jogging, yoga, tai chi, cycling and swimming; stuff that doesn’t put too much stress on the body.

Ideally, you want to reduce your effort to around half your normal capacity. So, give heavy weight training, high intensity cardio, endurance training, sprint and power training the red light for a few days. And forget team sports. Because you don't want to get others sick, right?!

If you feel worse ….

Stop exercising immediately, especially if your symptoms are below the neck. If you feel lousy and achy, perhaps with chest congestion, fever, stomach flu or full body muscle aches, then it’s not safe to continue your workout program. At this point, you really need to rest.

What’s happening now is, your body is throwing everything it has against the viral invaders. Your mucous production goes into overdrive (to prevent bacteria and viruses from reaching your respiratory tract) and you develop a fever, aches, pain, and perhaps nausea and diarrhea, all in an effort to rid your body of the attacking flu virus. While these defenses are milder with a cold than flu, the goal is always the same — eliminating the virus from the body.

Essentially, biology is telling you need to adjust your behavior. So adjust your behavior! Head to bed for some badly needed rest. Fighting the invaders is a lot of work and your body needs all the energy available to do it’s healing thing. If you’re wiped out with fatigue, sleep. Stay hydrated by drinking water, green tea, soup and other fluids (no alcohol!). These basic self-care techniques will help your body to heal itself …. not a strenuous workout.

Bottom line

Listen to your body. We’ve evolved over millions of years to fight these winter bugs, so use your symptoms as a barometer for what you should be doing at the gym. If you’re having a hard time getting out of bed and are coughing and sneezing all over the place, do yourself a big favor. Stay in bed and rest up.

As soon as you feel well enough to get up and go outside, you can consider a low-key workout. Don't go all-in for the first few days. Start at half your normal workout and increase the routine gradually. Once you start feeling exhausted, stop and try again the next day. If you try to push it too soon, you may just end up prolonging the recovery phase. It’s always better to be safe than sorry.

With that said, stay strong and healthy everyone. And Happy Holidays!


Anka Urbahn