Working out while getting over a cold?

Dear Alice,

Is it ok to work out while getting over a cold?

Dear Reader,

Regular physical activity is can be beneficial for the body and mind — and can also boost the immune system! But what to do when germs already have you down? Although the tried-and-true methods of rest and drinking fluids may help with recovery, sometimes a little movement can help with decongestion and body aches. When it comes to being physically active while getting over a cold, the best tip is to listen to what your body is telling you. It's okay to forgo a few fitness days if your body doesn't feel ready for it. However, if you're feeling up to it, there are some ideas you can keep in mind.

The first consideration is where the symptoms are located. Are your symptoms above or below the neck?

  • Above the neck: If you have symptoms such as a runny nose, watery eyes, or other symptoms of a mild cold, it's generally okay to get moving. It’s wise to listen to the body — if you feel up to a light workout, you may decide to go for it.
  • Below the neck: If you have symptoms such as chest congestion or tightness, muscle aches, cough, sore throat, or nausea, it’s wise to hold off. It's also recommended that you skip your workout if you're experiencing fatigue or a fever. Physical activity may do more harm than good, no matter how ready you feel. Monitoring these symptoms closely, getting plenty of rest, hydration, and if you’re not starting to feel better, setting up an appointment with your health care provider may help you get back into action sooner.

If you do decide you're feeling up to a workout, some activities might feel better than others. Light or moderate exercises are good ways to increase your heart rate without causing further strain on your body while it's fighting an illness. Some examples of moderate exercises to try when you're not feeling like yourself include:

  • Walking: Walking is a great way to clear clogged up sinuses and encourage deep breathing.
  • Jogging: Jogging can help with decongestion, if you are already jogging regularly. It’s wise to avoid sprinting and marathon training, though, which can put too much strain on your immune system while you're fighting an infection.
  • Qi gong: Qi gong combines martial arts and meditation which can have therapeutic benefits such as stress reduction and increased blood flow, all of which can help alleviate cold symptoms.
  • Yoga: Just like qi gong, yoga can reduce feelings of stress with the added benefit of stretching out any aches and pains from your cold. Just make sure to keep a slow flow and avoid upside down poses.
  • Dance: You can replace the cold bug with the jitterbug and get movement going with some dancing. Not only does it reduce stress, but listening to your favorite tunes can improve your mood and boost your immune system in the process.

Trying to avoid gyms or group settings such team sports, where you may be exposed to more germs and spread the germs you’re carrying to others to keep yourself and others healthy. You may also want to stay away from weight exercises to avoid straining and exacerbating any sinus pressure or headaches. Additionally, working out in the cold when you're feeling unwell can irritate your airways and lead to more coughing and runny noses than when you started. If you think your cold-like symptoms are due to allergies, you may want to consider talking to a health care provider about potential treatments to reduce symptoms while being physically active, such as taking an antihistamine.

Once you've recovered a little more and are feeling up to it, you might be able to slowly return to your original routines. Regular, moderate physical activity can improve your immune system and reduce your likelihood of getting sick in the future. Here are some additional tips to keep you healthy once you're back on track:

  • Drink up: Hydration is key when sweating. If you become dehydrated, your mucous membranes also dry up and are more susceptible to infection.
  • Re-Fuel: Physical activity can burn up calories faster than normal — and calories are your primary source of energy. Eat a post-workout snack with both carbohydrates and protein to make sure your body can continue to work efficiently, even after your sweat session is over. A quick post-workout banana may do the trick!
  • Get your R&R: Rest and recovery is just as critical as your regular workout. Balance training days with regular rest days so your body can recover from tough workouts and perform at its peak. This includes getting enough sleep each night so your body and mind can rest up. Too much high-intensity physical activity without enough downtime may actually cause more harm than good for your immune system.
  • Get out of those sweaty gym clothes: Sweating helps the body regulate temperature — as you heat up from physical activity, sweat cools you down. But staying in cool, damp clothing post-workout isn’t ideal. Ditch the sweaty spandex and opt for drier, warmer options.
  • Wash your hands: The signs in the bathroom aren’t just for employees — everyone benefits from hand washing, especially at the gym. Sharing weights, mats, and even using the water fountain are all ways you can spread and pick up germs. Do yourself and your gym-mates a favor and wash your hands thoroughly and frequently. If you do decide to use the gym when you're feeling under the weather, you may consider wearing a face mask to reduce the risk of spreading it to your fellow gym-goers.

If you're feeling under the weather, it’s wise to keep track of your symptoms and be physically active in moderation. If you notice increased congestion, coughing or wheezing, making an appointment with a health care provider may be wise. More serious symptoms include chest tightness or pressure, trouble breathing, dizziness, or difficulty with balance. If you experience any of these symptoms, it’s advised to stop activity and seek emergency medical attention right away.

Hope this helps!

Last updated Feb 12, 2021
Originally published Feb 21, 2014

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