Feeling Sick? When to Skip Your Workout

By Michael Scholtz, M.A., Best Life fitness expert

The start of the sneezin’ season is officially upon us. Everyday, we’re exposed to countless cold and flu bugs, and chances are, you’ll likely come down with a cold or two in the coming months. You may wonder how being under the weather will affect your workoutsds. Should you persist and head to the gym despite a runny nose and cough or should you skip it and let your body recover?

If you’re really knocked out by aches and pains and/or a fever, it’s usually an easy decision—skip your workout. In these cases, you may not even feel like getting out of bed. Your best bet: Give yourself at least 72 hours without exercise and then see how you feel. And when you do eventually go back to your routine, be sure to reduce the duration and intensity for at least one more week until you’re fully recovered.

However, if you’re feeling just a little stuffy, a bit of exercise might make you feel better. Use these guidelines to figure out whether to lace up or lay back down. (And as always, check with your doctor if you’re unsure about exercising while sick.)

Locate your illness. The first thing to consider is where you feel bad. It’s typically fine to exercise when your symptoms are above the neck—sniffles, a headache and nasal congestion are usually not serious enough to require time off. On the other hand, symptoms below the neck, including body aches, a chest cold or bronchial infections, usually mean you need a rest day or two. Definite workout killers: A fever and a sinus infection. No matter what your other symptoms are or how you feel, if you have a fever, exercise is out. A body temperature over 99 degrees means you’re already working hard to fight off something serious, and exercise will only increase the stress on your body. As for a sinus infection, working out before you’re healed can lead to much more serious problems, like pneumonia.

Lighten up. If you do decide to exercise, be sure to go easy on yourself. Light exercise can actually help clear your sinuses if you’re stuffed up and may give a temporary respite from related symptoms, like coughing, sneezing and sore throat. Avoid heavy exercise, which can prolong your illness or make it worse. Ideally, you’d look to keep your intensity level similar to that of a stroll rather a Spin class.

Go solo. For those times when you decide to go ahead with exercise even though you’re a little under the weather, it’s a good idea to stay away from the gym. It’s very easy to spread germs to other exercises when you have to share space and equipment with so many people in close quarters. Instead, stick to a home workout or an outside session if weather permits.

Getting back into your routine is important not just for your weight-loss efforts but your health, too. In fact, exercise can help you ward off future colds and infections. According to exercise and immunity researcher David Nieman, Ph.D., from Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina, the right amount of activity will strengthen your ability to fight off illness. In one study, he found that people who exercised at a moderate pace for 40 minutes per day had half as many sick days due to colds or sore throats as those who didn’t exercise. You may also want to avoid overdoing it after your illness passes, as that can actually weaken your immune system and leave you more susceptible to future infections. Make sure to increase your exercise slowly and focus on just one variable (duration, intensity or frequency) at a time. And be aware of the symptoms of overtraining, including an increase in your resting heart rate, difficulty achieving your target heart rate during exercise, difficulty recovering from workouts and general weakness or fatigue.