We've all had that internal debate: Am I too sick to work out, or will exercising actually make me feel better?
Low to moderate exercise can sometimes improve your immune response when you have common cold symptoms like a sore throat.
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But if your sore throat is accompanied by additional symptoms, like a fever, you may want to avoid exercise until your symptoms go away.
Here are five questions to consider when debating whether you should exercise with a sore throat or not.
Talk to your doctor before exercising with a sore throat if you have other health problems, are an older adult with a compromised immune system, are pregnant or still aren't sure whether you should work out.
1. Is It a Cold, or Something Else?
While many viral and bacterial infections may cause a sore throat, the rhinovirus is one of the most common — hence the name, "the common cold," per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
It's generally OK to continue working out when sick if your sore throat is a symptom of a cold, according to the Mayo Clinic. (Other symptoms typically include a runny nose, nasal congestion and sneezing.)
In fact, a moderate sweat session may even help you feel better by opening your nasal passages and temporarily relieving nasal congestion.
It's also OK to exercise if your sore throat is caused by allergies, per Temple Health. You may just want to move your workout indoors to avoid outdoor allergens like pollen or grass, which could make your symptoms worse. (Other symptoms typically include an itchy, runny or stuffed nose and itchy, red or watery eyes.)
If your sore throat is accompanied by a fever, however, the Mayo Clinic advises against exercise. In that case, you may have a viral infection such as COVID-19 or the flu, and you'd be better off getting some rest.
You also shouldn't exercise with a virus (or other contagious condition) in public places like the gym, as you could easily spread the virus to others.
2. Are Your Symptoms Above the Neck?
If your answer to this question is "yes" and you're fever-free, it's probably OK to exercise while under the weather, per the Mayo Clinic.
But to be sure, you can always try something called the "neck rule" or "neck check," per the Cleveland Clinic.
Symptoms that are "above the neck" like runny nose, nasal congestion, sneezing, earache or a minor sore throat mean you're OK to exercise.
"Below the neck" symptoms, including chest congestion, a hacking cough, aching muscles, chills, diarrhea or an upset stomach, should be a signal to forgo your workout for some rest.
3. What Kind of Exercise Are You Planning?
When you're sick with a sore throat, you might want to turn down the intensity of your upcoming workout.
Low to moderate exercise may actually be beneficial for mild cold symptoms from the neck up, per the American College of Sports Medicine. Some examples include walking, cycling and yoga.
Remember: Fitting any type of physical activity into your day is beneficial to your health. Not every workout needs to be intense to be beneficial.
In fact, a large October 2023 study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that even light aerobic exercise, done consistently, is associated with a reduced risk of dying from the flu or pneumonia.
High-intensity exercise, on the other hand, may add unnecessary stress to your immune system, so it's wise to stay away when you're dealing with a sore throat. This includes endurance activities, like heavy weightlifting or running long distances.
Slowing down or reducing the duration of your exercise routine are also easy ways to decrease the intensity of a workout, and doing so can ensure your safety, per the Mayo Clinic. If you overdo it, you may put yourself at risk for injury or feeling even sicker.
Are There Any Risks of Exercising While Sick?
There aren't many risks to working out when sick if you have symptoms "above the neck" and don't have a fever.
But if you're sick and have underlying health conditions that affect your lungs, like asthma, COPD or heart disease, you could run the risk of making your condition worse, per the American Lung Association.
Of course, check with your doctor before returning to your workout routine.
4. What Is Your Body Telling You?
Whether you can exercise if you have a cold should, in part, depend on how you're feeling.
It's important to keep listening to your body during sickness, meaning, if you're exhausted and run down (or even woke up with a sore throat), you may take it as a sign to rest.
The Mayo Clinic says to let your body be your guide. If you're feeling off, know that a few days away from the gym won't affect your physical fitness in the long term. If anything, the break will let your body recover faster.
How Long Should You Wait to Exercise After a Cold?
The amount of time you should wait to exercise will largely depend on your individual symptoms. Many people completely recover from colds within about 10 days, per the CDC, but some symptoms can linger up to 14 days. (The CDC recommends seeing a doctor if your symptoms aren't improving after about 10 days.)
Once you're feeling an improvement in your symptoms, you can gradually ease back into your exercise routine.
You'll know you're ready for your normal routine once you've finished any prescribed medications, your doctor's given you the OK or you no longer have any symptoms.
5. Where Will You Be Exercising?
Even if you're up for a workout, hitting the gym when you're contagious is inconsiderate (and dangerous) to those around you.
So if you're thinking about going to your favorite fitness studio or the gym when a sore throat is persistent, pay attention to your other symptoms first.
Respiratory infections, like the flu and common cold, are mostly spread through aerosolized droplets. So when you sneeze or cough, those droplets enter the air and can get into the mouth or nose of a gym-goer nearby.
Alternatively, these droplets can land on the equipment around you, which can be transmitted to the person who uses the machine next. (Remember to always wipe down gym equipment after you use it!)
For the sake of your fellow gym-goers, it's probably best to keep your workout super local — like in your home or outdoors — especially if you're sneezing or coughing a lot. If this option isn't possible, take a few rest days until your symptoms go away.
The gym will be happy to have you back when you're feeling like your healthy self again.
Physical activity and a sore throat don't always go hand-in-hand. A light workout could help you feel better if you have a mild cold, but it could also make you feel worse if you have severe symptoms.
Consider skipping your workout if your symptoms are "below the neck," if you're feeling exhausted or if you're recovering from something contagious.
If you do decide to exercise with a sore throat, make sure to drink plenty of water, eat a well-rounded diet and get plenty of rest to avoid prolonging or worsening your symptoms.
Can I sweat out a sore throat?
You may have heard that you can "sweat out a cold" by exercising, wearing lots of clothing or taking a hot shower, but this is not true, per the Cleveland Clinic.
While consistent exercise can help support your immune system over time (and taking a hot shower might temporarily alleviate throat pain), you cannot cure a sore throat or cold by working out.
What is the best exercise when sick?
The best type of exercise to do while you're sick is often light or moderate in intensity. Try things like walking, yoga, a slower bike ride or Pilates.
Avoid lifting heavy weights, intense cardio and resistance machines until you feel better.
- American College of Sports Medicine: "Exercise and The Common Cold"
- American Lung Association: "Can You Exercise With a Cold?"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Should You Really Work Out When You’re Sick?"
- British Journal of Sports Medicine: "Leisure-time physical activity and mortality from influenza and pneumonia: a cohort study of 577 909 US adults"
- CDC: "Rhinoviruses"
- CDC: "Preventing and Treating Common Cold"
- NHS Inform: "Swollen Glands"
- Temple Health: "Is It OK to Exercise With Allergies?"
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.