Should You Work Out If You’re Sick?

Sep 6, 2016 //

You’re right in the middle of training or reaching your weight loss goal and boom — your groove is interrupted by a bug that’s been going around. You might not want to completely stop training, but how do you know when it’s time to take a break from exercising to focus on recovery?

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Follow these general guidelines to know when you should sleep it off and when it’s safe to sweat through an illness.

If You Have Common Cold Symptoms

workout when sick

If you have a cold, but you’re still feeling good enough to work out, it’s most likely safe to do so, according to Dr. Amy Powell, board certified sports medicine physician. (Keep in mind, however, that you’ll be doing everyone a favour if you work out at home to avoid getting germs all over public gym equipment.)

Certain levels of exercise might even help you fend off a cold as well, opening your nasal passages, relieving nasal congestion and making you feel better temporarily. But although it’s safe to exercise through a cold, not everyone has the ability to do so. Only you know how you’ll be able to perform while you are experiencing these symptoms, so listen to your body go with your gut.

If Your Symptoms Are ‘Below The Neck’

workout and sickness

Do the neck check. According to Powell, if you are feeling sick from the neck up — including a sore throat, nasal congestion or sneezing — you should still be okay to work out.

If, however, your symptoms are “below the neck” — coughing, body aches, fatigue or fever — you may want to take a day off. And don’t think you can “sweat out” the sickness, either.

“Sweating it out is an old wives tale. It can be confused with the good endorphins that are released during exercise or clearing out congestion,” says Powell.

While you may not want to slow down at all in fear that it might interrupt with your progress, you actually might interfere with your body’s recovery process by working out when you’re ill. Be honest with yourself and give your body the time it needs to recover.

If You’re Burning Up

workout in fever

This should go without saying, but if you have a fever, put those gym shoes away until the fever breaks. According to sports medicine specialist Dr. Lewis G. Maharam, it’s essential to take your temperature without taking ibuprofen or another fever reducer. If you have a fever of 101 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, forget about exercise and focus on recovery.

When you’re running a fever, your internal body temperature is already heightened, and it will increase more if you decide to work up a sweat. The rise in your body’s temperature will cause the denaturing of protein that makes up the muscles, lungs and every other part of your body. In order to know if you’re back in the safe zone to work out, take your temperature when you haven’t taken any fever-reducing medications. While Maharam reports that it’s not impossible to work out and train with a fever, it’s simply not a good idea.

Why A Break Won’t Break You

rest when sick

Everyone responds to illnesses differently. Maharam has seen athletes run marathons with the having the flu, while other people can’t even bring themselves to do a set of pushups while suffering from a cold. Bottom line? Listen to your body and don’t feel like you have to push yourself if you’re under the weather.

“By going at a slow and steady pace (10 per cent increase per week when feeling great), you can double your level of fitness in seven to eight weeks; since there are 52 weeks in a year, you can potentially double your fitness nearly seven times or 128 times from where you started,” says Dr. Stephen G. Rice, director of Sports Medicine at the Jersey Shore University Medical Centre.

Taking some time off to recover from a cold or flu shouldn’t prevent you from achieving your fitness goals for long, and you shouldn’t feel guilty for doing so, either. Rice states that both cardiovascular and aerobic exercise or heavy duty strength training can put you at risk for exceeding your capabilities when you’re sick (and on antibiotics). He stresses that individuals should be sensible, reasonable and moderate even throughout the recovery process.

Preventing Future Illness

If you’re looking to prevent getting sick altogether (aren’t we all?), there’s evidence that moderate to high levels of exercise can actually help boost immunity. Powell adds that high-performing athletes can hit a certain tipping point during their training, which can actually cause a decline in immunity leaving them more susceptible to illness. For the average person, however, this decline is extremely rare.

Whether you’re training for your next marathon or looking to lose a dress size, it’s important to listen to your body, especially if you’re not feeling 100 per cent. Know when to recover and get yourself back in top condition before attempting to set another personal record.

“The first rule of thumb for all sports medicine doctors: do what you can do, if you can’t, don’t,” says Maharam.