Some die-hards like to boast that they never, ever skip a workout even when they're not feeling 100 percent. That's some serious dedication! But it's not always advisable. Though there are some cases when it's OK to work out when you're sick, chances are, it's best to take a rest day (or two).
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Exercise has plenty of health benefits, but if you're fighting an illness, your body needs time to recover properly. And if you push yourself too hard in the gym, you may prolong the time it takes to get better.
How do you decide if you should you suck it up or throw in the towel? You'll need to consider your symptoms first.
How to Decide if You Should Hit the Gym or Hit the Hay
Is it bad to work out when you're sick? The answer largely depends on what symptoms you're experiencing and their severity. First, assess how you're feeling overall. If you feel like you need a rest day, take it! Just like one workout won't give you six-pack abs, skipping one or two gym sessions won't set you back.
Illness can lead to fatigue or dehydration — two big things to look out for when weighing the decision to work out, as exercise can make these symptoms worse, says Cynthia Li, MD, who owns a private practice in integrative and functional medicine. While fatigue and dehydration may not be severe, they may be signs you should skip your workout, she says.
Generally, though, if your symptoms are "above the neck," you're probably OK to exercise, according to the Mayo Clinic. However, if you feel "below the neck" symptoms, you'll want to skip your sweat session.
It's OK to exercise if your symptoms are above the neck:
- Sore throat
- Runny nose
- Nasal congestion
It's best to avoid exercise if your symptoms are below the neck:
- Muscle aches
- Chest congestion
- Stomach pain
Still not sure? Consider Dr. Li's advice for some common ailments:
If You Have a Cold
Generally, Dr. Li advises against exercising with a cold, instead prioritizing rest to conserve energy and recuperate as quickly and efficiently as possible. However, it's generally not dangerous to exercise with a cold if your symptoms are limited to your eyes, nose and throat.
Bottom line: Listen to your body. If you don't feel well enough to exercise, don't.
If You Have the Flu
Typically the flu is accompanied by a fever or feverish chills, muscle or body aches and (for some people) digestive unrest, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). While most people recover in a few days, it's important to give your body plenty of rest, as the flu can develop into other conditions, like pneumonia, if it persists.
"Someone with the full-blown flu usually finds it challenging to walk to the bathroom, so I think it's highly unlikely she or he would consider exercising," says Dr. Li.
If You Have a Stomach Bug
Usually, a stomach bug indicates your digestive system is, shall we say, disturbed, which means you're probably losing a lot of fluids, according to the Mayo Clinic. In some cases, a stomach issues may also come with a fever and muscle ache.
Considering the potential for dehydration, you definitely want to skip your workout if you're dealing with a stomach bug, Dr. Li says. Especially if you're experiencing a lot of vomiting or diarrhea, you'll want to be wary of your hydration levels and see the doctor one to three days after infection (or the onset of symptoms).
If You Have a Respiratory Condition
If you're dealing with a respiratory infection in your chest, Dr. Li recommends avoiding exercise until your cough and congestion completely subside before going back to the gym. Respiratory infections can make breathing difficult, which can be especially taxing if you're planning get your heart rate up with some exercise.
If You Have COVID-19
It's important to get plenty of rest, hydrate and stay in touch with your doctor while you experience any symptoms like fever, cough and shortness of breath.
While you experience symptoms, it's best to avoid exercise entirely, according to the American College of Sports Medicine. People who are infected but experiencing no symptoms can do some light to moderate activity, like yoga or walking. But pay attention to your body — if you experience symptoms or fatigue, stop exercising and speak with your doctor.
Avoid vigorous activity (like strength training or high-intensity interval exercise) for at least two weeks after your positive test.
Protecting Others if You're Sick
Even if you feel well enough to exercise, going to the gym when you're sick is inconsiderate (and harmful!) to those around you. For the common cold, symptoms usually persist over several days, whereas flu symptoms can develop within a few hours. Generally, people are contagious for about a week after symptoms develop.
Whether you're dealing with a cold or flu, steer clear of the gym for at least a week to protect those around you. That's because respiratory infections, like the flu and common cold, are mostly spread through aerosolized droplets, Dr. Li says.
When you sneeze or cough, those droplets enter the air and can get into the mouth or nose of a gym-goer nearby. Or, these droplets can land on the equipment around you, which can be transmitted to the person who uses the machine next.
Meanwhile, if you've tested positive for COVID, you should avoid the gym for at least 10 symptom-free days, according to the CDC. And even after that time period has passed, pay close attention to your body. If you start to experience symptoms after the time is up, skip the gym and contact your doctor as soon as possible.
Don't tough it out at the expense of your fellow exercisers. "Home is where you should be when you're sick," Dr. Li says. "Avoid touching your face, cover your cough and sneezes with a tissue, keep your distance from others and wear a mask when possible."
One last — and very important — reminder: "For anyone with an upper respiratory infection: Wash or sanitize your hands frequently," Dr. Li says.
How to Exercise When You're Sick
Although rest should be the main priority if you're not feeling well, if you still plan on going to the gym while sick, you'll want to adjust your workout, Dr. Li says. Dial down the intensity and length of your workout. Instead of going for a run, bring your pace down or opt for a walk. Avoid intense intervals and keep your workout short.
Also, be considerate of your fellow gym-goers. Wash your hands regularly, wipe down your machines and use a personal water bottle instead of the water fountain. Though you really shouldn't exercise if you're contagious (it's not fair to everyone else), even these small measures can help prevent the spread of germs.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Flu Symptoms and Complications"
- Mayo Clinic: "Viral Gastroenteritis (Stomach Flu)"
- Mayo Clinic: "Is it OK to Exercise if I Have a Cold?"
- CDC: "Quarantine and Isolation"
- American College of Sports Medicine: "Staying Active During the Coronavirus Pandemic"
- CDC: "What to Do If You Are Sick"