Working Out While Sick: Yay or Nay?
So, you've come down with a sore throat, runny nose, nasal congestion, or something else that indicates you aren't 100%. What's the first thing that comes to mind? "Should I be working out while sick?" surprisingly, grabs the number one spot.
Yes, you heard that correctly. Many people refuse to stay home and recuperate while sick, choosing to get their workout in at all costs.
But is this the best course of action? It might not be, especially during the days of COVID-19. If you're wondering whether you're fair game, relax, we've got you covered and will help you make an informed choice.
The Relationship Between Exercise And Illness
Without a doubt, exercise is good for you, right? Well… at least 99% of the time. You see, working out when you’re sick should be considered a mixed bag.
Exercise, depending on the intensity, can have a short-term beneficial or detrimental effect on the immune system. The higher the intensity, the more likely you run the risk of getting sick(1).
But don’t let that deter you from going hard- there is a strong correlation to frequency as well. If you plan to work out several days per week (usually more than 3), it is strongly advised to make high-intensity sessions brief and infrequent.
That means allowing your body ample time to recover between high-intensity days (such as doing cardio every other day), as these breaks are necessary to further strengthen the immune system.
The reason for this? The stress hormone cortisol is elevated following intense training sessions- more so than during low-intensity sessions.
What Are Your Symptoms?
A lot depends on the symptoms you are experiencing at the time. Some are definitely milder than others and could indicate something that isn't even necessarily a true illness to begin with.
Consider if you're experiencing any of these symptoms:
Runny Nose Or Stuffy Nose
There are many instances when a runny and congested nose indicates nothing more than an allergy. Given, we all are on high alert during these times, and understandably, people are apprehensive at the slightest sign.
However, if these are your only symptoms, it is a safe bet to say that working out should be fine. Getting this done might be a little more challenging though since many facilities might restrict your entry if you come sneezing and sniffling at the door.
If you have been experiencing such symptoms for a few days, chances are high that you have a sinus infection and need to be attended to by a physician.
An earache is an overarching symptom that could point to several things, but many times it is simply related to a sinus issue. It tends to frequently occur along with other mild symptoms like the runny or stuffy nose, so there really isn't much to worry about.
We wouldn’t advise you attempt to lift weights with an active ear infection though, as your balance might be altered and troublesome to working out safely.
Sore throats have to be one of the most annoying symptoms of a cold but are luckily not very serious most of the time.
Given that you haven't had symptoms of the sore throat persisting for more than 2-3 days, ensuring you stay hydrated by sipping on soothing cool liquids is one of the best ways to be rid of it.
Body Aches And Pain
Working out when you feel unexplained symptoms of pain and discomfort is not a good idea, especially since it is usually indicative of another underlying condition.
Not only are you bound to feel lethargic and tired, but at times like this what you really need is to just stay home and sleep it off.
Not only does having a chesty cough sound nasty to others around you, but we think you would have an exceedingly difficult time working out when experiencing the same.
A chesty cough is indicative of increased mucus production in the lungs, normally with increased bronchial inflammation.
This means that you might have a difficult time breathing as you normally would. This could lead to frequent stops and starts as you struggle for breath.
Not to mention the urge to expel your sputum every several minutes could be annoying to those around you.
A dry cough is not nearly as troublesome as a chesty (or wet cough) one, since there isn't normally the associated shortness of breath.
Yes, your throat may be irritated, but frequent sipping of liquids could alleviate this to some degree.
Having a fever is generally a big no-no when it comes to exercise for several reasons.
For one, a fever is usually the indicator that your body is actively dealing with an infection of some sort. Many of your body's resources go into this fight, so why would you want to allocate energy and more into the gym when this time is critical to your wellbeing.
Secondly, increases sweating from a fever might mean transient dehydration and a general feeling of malaise.
The combination of temperature elevation from the fever plus that induced by exercise is also not a good combo.
We suggest you hold off on the exercise until you are fever-free for your own safety.
being sick doesn't only refer to having a cold or flu, but also many order symptoms including vomiting and diarrhea.
If you're experiencing these symptoms, we recommend that you do not attempt to exercise since you are likely to experience some degree of dehydration which will have a noticeable impact on your performance.
As little as 2% dehydration is known to have a profound impact on your performance. Plus, there's the added effect of stomach pain and generalized weakness that you are likely to experience, so why risk passing out on the gym floor? one or two days away from working out won’t kill you, so stay home and rest.
Is Exercise Itself Bad While You Are Sick?
The answer to this is “it depends”. What does it depend upon? Many different variables. For instance, high intensity exercise should not be your primary goal when you are under the weather. In fact, you should opt for low to moderate-intensity exercise only, as the demands placed on the body from high-intensity exercise lead to further depletion of the very substances necessary to facilitate recovery.
In addition to this, exercise may bring about some undesirable physiological changes at the time, including
Increased body Temperature – you may already be grappling with a fever, which when combined with the enhanced metabolic barn from exercise can affect you in ways unimaginable. For instance, overheating of the body can lead to seizures or even heart attacks.
Dehydration – your illness may in itself be bringing about dehydration, but when combined with sweat lost by exercise, you can easily put yourself in a dangerous situation. Disruptions to the body’s electrolyte balance can cause cramping or worse. Added to this is the fact that your performance will suffer, you can see why it might be in your best interest to just the home.
Hypoxia – Hypoxia refers to a scenario characterized by low blood oxygen levels. This, of course, can have serious repercussions on the body, in severe cases possibly causing heart and brain damage. This is much more likely to occur if you possess mucus in the lungs, are asthmatic, or deal with other respiratory related infections.
What You Can Do While You’re Sick
Okay – we get it. There are many times when you may not feel that you are sick enough, and hence capable of at least a lower intensity workout. This might be acceptable given that you do not have a fever or experiencing shortness of breath.
Low Intensity Cardio
Low intensity cardio might be just what you need when dealing with illness, as it not overly taxing on the body, but sufficient to get the heart pumping. This could mean you breathe a little easier, or your nasal congestion improves a bit.
You don’t have to overdo this either – as little as 10 minutes is more than sufficient for a day or two of workouts.
Stretching And Mobility Exercises
Sometimes a few dynamic stretches will suffice, but yoga is another very good low-impact workout option. Nothing drastic is required here – the goal is not to break a PR.
What You Can Do To Speed Up Recovery
Nobody likes to be away from the gym for several weeks. However, especially during Covid- 19 times you must do your best to not inadvertently infect others with what you might believe is a simple illness.
Here’s what you can do to play your part
Train At Home
As direct as it sounds, if you are sick, one of the best things you can do is just stay at home. If you don’t feel that you are sick enough to have to do nothing, then any type of exercise can work. If you have any equipment around your house- even better.
Drink Lots Of Liquids
Dehydration happens quite easily. It doesn’t take much for you to get slightly dehydrated, but in turn, this seemingly small change can have major repercussions. For one, your performance will suck(3). Secondly, you may be slowing down how long it would otherwise take you to recover, as water is essential for not just metabolism, but also transport of waste.
Use Over The Counter Meds
These may include those that help manage fevers, allergy/sinus symptoms, and coughs. Some may even have you drowsy, so keep that in mind if you plan on working out in a public gym.
Take A Cold And Flu Booster
These usually include high doses of micronutrients that are believed to help enhance the speed of recovery from illness. They usually include Vitamin C, Zinc, Magnesium, and more often than not, Vitamin D.
The idea behind these formulations is the fact that anti-oxidant nutrients are rapidly used up during periods of illness, necessitating a ready supply of backup troops to ensure recovery.
Go To The Doctor- If Necessary
People are generally reluctant to go to their doctor. Men, arguably, resist this even more as it’s viewed as a sign of weakness in their minds. However, it needs to be emphasized the fact that they are only there to help- especially if you notice that you’re still sick beyond 3 days.
Make an honest assessment, and go to the doctor if you believe the symptoms aren’t something you can take care of on your own.
Sleep is critical to your recovery. Without it, your gains would come to a screeching halt. And yet, many people find this a hard pill to swallow, since sleep is almost regarded as a waste of time. But what needs to be understood is the fact that during sleep many restorative processes are activated- some of which assist the immune system in its fight against disease.
So do yourself and everyone around you a favor- just stay in bed and recuperate.
You’re not the first person on the planet to miss a training day due to illness, nor will you be the last. Yes, it can be frustrating to have to sit it out, or just do something you consider a waste of time (such as lower weight, or fewer reps for instance), but our bodies weren’t meant to go 100 percent all the time.
Even more so- nobody wants to be around a coughing, sniffling person, especially at this interval of time when there are possibly so many undiagnosed cases of COVID-19 walking around like the common cold.
Stay home- workout, or just sleep. Your body needs the rest, and you’ll be doing society a favor at large by not possibly putting others at risk for becoming sick too.
(1)Khammassi M, Ouerghi N, Said M, et al. Continuous Moderate-Intensity but Not High-Intensity Interval Training Improves Immune Function Biomarkers in Healthy Young Men.J Strength Cond Res 2020;34(1):249-256. doi:10.1519/JSC
(2)Goh, Jorming & Lim, Chin & Suzuki, Katsuhiko. (2019). Effects of Endurance-, Strength-, and Concurrent Training on Cytokines and Inflammation: Scientific Basics and Practical Applications. 10.1007/978-3-319-75547-2_9.</p>
(3)Barr SI. Effects of dehydration on exercise performance.<span> </span><i>Can J Appl Physiol</i>. 1999;24(2):164-172. doi:10.1139/h99-014