You might not feel like exercising when you have a bad cold. But if you're an avid exerciser, you may worry about the effect skipping a few days might have on your conditioning. The good news is that you can continue to exercise even if you have a cold. Exercising in the end stages of a cold won't worsen your symptoms or prolong your illness.
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Minor and Severe Cold Symptoms
As long as your cold symptoms only affect you above the neck, it's okay to continue exercising with a cold. Symptoms such as nasal stuffiness, sneezing, watering eyes and minor sore throat all indicate a garden-variety cold. If you have wheezing, fever, chest pain, chest tightness or difficulty breathing, all signs of a more serious illness, don't exercise; see your doctor instead.
A Cold's Effect on Performance
Exercising even though you still have a cold doesn't affect your athletic performance or ability to exercise, according to a Ball State University study reported in the May 1997 issue of "Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise." Researchers studied the effects of exercise on lung capacity and physical performance during an induced rhinovirus infection. Researchers found no cold-related effects on either between the group with the cold and the control group.
The Effect of Exercise on a Cold
Several studies conducted by Ball State University have looked at the effects of exercise on the duration and symptoms of a cold. The first, reported in the November 1998 issue of "Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise," found that exercising with a cold induced through rhinovirus inoculation into the nose in moderately fit people did not worsen cold symptoms or increase the duration of the cold. The second, reported in the October 2003 "British Journal of Sports Medicine," found that exercise did not worsen or prolong cold symptoms in sedentary people.
What Makes Your Symptoms Worse
If you develop worsening symptoms while exercising at the end of a cold, it's unlikely that exercise caused your condition to worsen, unless you already had a more serious infection. Your cold may have escalated into a more serious respiratory infection, such as pneumonia, which can happen whether or not you exercise while sick. If you experience extreme fatigue when exercising while sick, see your doctor.