You've dutifully kept up with your New Year's resolution of regular gym attendance when you feel the twinge of a scratchy throat or sinus headache. Is your streak over? If it's a minor cold, you probably can persevere and might even feel a bit better after your trip to the gym. The gym can make certain types of illnesses worse, however, so analyze your symptoms carefully first.
When To Go
Work out through your illness only if your symptoms remain "above the neck." These include symptoms such as a headache, a sore throat or nasal congestion. You should stay away from the gym if you have a severe cough, chest congestion, nausea, a fever or aching muscles. Additionally, you should keep any exercise when sick at or below a moderate intensity, according to the American Council on Exercise. With minor colds, you can return to full intensity a few days after symptoms go away, but for severe diseases such as the flu, you should forgo intensive workouts until a couple of weeks after they subside.
Moderate exercise boosts your immune system, as its cells move through your body more quickly during and after a workout, according to ACE. It also can provide temporary relief from nasal congestion. That does not mean going to the gym will help you recover more quickly from a cold. A 1998 study at Ball State University indicated that while exercise helped alleviate some of the symptoms of a cold, the cold lasted the same amount of time whether someone exercised or not. There is no evidence that you can "sweat out" a cold through exercise. Intense exercise, meanwhile, produces hormones that lower immunity, making you more susceptible to further infections.
Going to the gym with chest congestion can cause potentially serious medical problems, according to National Strength and Conditioning Association specialist Stew Smith. Working out with a chest cold puts a strain on your heart, particularly lifting weights, which steeply elevates your blood pressure even when you're healthy. If you go to the gym with a moderate chest infection, you might leave with bronchitis or even pneumonia, Smith said. Even when your illness is above the neck, take cues from your body and stop your workout if your symptoms seem to worsen while exercising. If in doubt, consult your physician.
A gym routine requires discipline, and if that's a challenge for you, you don't want a minor case of the sniffles to provide a too easy excuse for you to unnecessarily skip the gym. When you do go, however, take care not to spread your illness to other gym patrons. Wash your hands frequently and wipe down any equipment when you've finished using it, or perhaps work out at home instead. Smith also cautions you not to neglect drinking plenty of water and fueling up with fruits, vegetables and lean meats to assist your body in fighting off the illness.
- University of Illinois Recreational Sports: You're Sick: Should You Exercise?
- American Council on Exercise: Can Exercise Reduce Your Risk of Catching a Cold?
- Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise; The Effect of Exercise Training on the Severity and Duration of a Viral Upper Respiratory Illness; T.G. Weidner, et al.
- Military.com: Working Out With a Cold
- The New York Times: Don't Starve a Cold of Exercise
- CNN Health: Should You Work Out When You're Sick?
- American Council on Exercise: At-Home (No Equipment) Workout
- Flu.gov: Flu Symptoms