Should You Exercise While You Are Sick?

exercise and sickness

Should you exercise while you are sick? This seems to be a frequently asked question. Since it’s cold and flu season, you might be unfortunate to come down with an illness, but you don’t want to fall off the fitness wagon and derail all the hard work you’ve put in to this point. Let’s look at the relationship between exercise and sickness, and when you might want to skip the gym until you are feeling well.

To Exercise or Not to Exercise, That is the Question

Let me start by saying that I am not a physician and I do not think any of my coworkers are either. I will provide my advice as a personal trainer, but definitely do NOT use this blog to override the advice of your physician or others with extensive medical schooling.

First, you must ask yourself a number of questions:

  1. How sick do you feel?
  2. What kind of sickness is it?
  3. ARE YOU CONTAGIOUS?
  4. What type of exercise were you planning on doing?

When You Should Skip The Gym

There is a general rule of thumb that suggests, if the sickness is above the neck, it’s probably okay to exercise and if the sickness is below the neck, you should probably stay home. But if whatever you have is contagious, be a good person and quarantine yourself from all of mankind.

That said, even if the sickness is above the neck, how do you feel? Do you feel as if you were hit by a train or five? Were you in the bathroom all night? Or is this a mild cold? Loss of body fluids via expulsion from either end of us can lead to dehydration, if proper rehydration protocols are not taken. I cannot think of a scenario where exercising while dehydrated yields positive experiences or outcomes.

We have to remember that exercise is a stressor. During illness, the body is already responding to stress. Adding excessive stress (i.e. intense exercise) could prolong or worsen our recovery process. During times of severe sickness, we want to maximize the body’s ability to fight off whatever bug is within us.

When Going To The Gym Might Be Okay

Important: Do not interpret the above paragraph as “you should never work out when you are sick.” You probably shouldn’t go do a CrossFit workout if you are suffering from illness. But I believe that if you can work out, you should. It should not be long in duration nor should it be intense in effort level. Maybe use the gym time to practice technique and form with some lifts. Or maybe this is the day you finally do those mobility exercises that you hate making time for. Or maybe use the workout to get a small sweat going with some light cardio. In fact, you might even feel a little better after some easy physical activity. If you don’t feel you belong on your deathbed, you can still find some way to be productive in the gym. Just make sure you wipe down your equipment (like you should be doing anyways) after use so your plague doesn’t spread to the rest of us. Sharing is not always caring.

How To Reduce The Likelihood of Getting Sick

  1. Vaccinate. Just because someone from the Flat Earth Society wearing a tinfoil hat said vaccines give you autism doesn’t mean they’re correct. Most people with the credentials to discuss this topic will strongly recommend getting vaccinated.
  2. Exercise regularly, but not too much. People who exercise often tend to get sick less than people who are sedentary. However, excessive exercise = stress overload. Too much stress can be detrimental to our immune system.
  3. Try to restrict emotional/mental stress. Easier said than done, I know. But, for the reasons mentioned above, reducing all forms of stress will reduce the likelihood of sickness.
  4. Stay hydrated. When we practice good hydration, we enhance the passage and filtration of our blood through the body’s lymphatic system.
  5. Make sure you are eating a well-balanced diet. Nutrient deficiencies make one susceptible to illness. Did you hear about the sailor that died from scurvy? His attempt to cure it was fruitless!
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Alex Tran Certified Personal Trainer at Elite Sports Clubs

Written by Alex Tran, Certified Personal Trainer at Elite Sports Club-Brookfield.

Alex has a B.S. in Exercise Science from Carroll University and is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) by the National Strength and Conditioning Association. He specializes in Powerlifting/Strength Training, Soccer-Specific Training, and Youth Sports Performance. Alex lives by the philosophy that those belonging to the field of Exercise Science have a responsibility to uphold with the certain persons in which they serve. Alex advocates a science-based approach and views it as his duty to educate those who seek help with their body, with the hopes of administering a positive, long-term impact on the rest of their lives one rep at a time.

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