Is It Okay to Exercise While Sick?

It’s the season of nagging coughs and runny noses. Should you rest or be active?

Are you too sick to exercise? If you only have a head cold, Dr. Robynne Chutkan of Georgetown University Hospital says working out may actually relieve symptoms. Photograph courtesy of Shutterstock.

As freezing temperatures roll in, so do runny noses, nagging coughs, and headaches.

But be honest: Are you really that sick, or are you just using a stuffy nose as an excuse to hang up the sneakers for a while?

If it’s the latter, you might want to rethink your strategy. Exercising when you have a regular cold (think “above-the-neck symptoms” such as runny noses, sneezing, or sore throat) can actually be beneficial, says Dr. Robynne Chutkan of Georgetown University Hospital and the Digestive Center for Women.

“Almost all studies show that exercise doesn’t hinder you if you’re sick and may actually help,” she says.

Take the deep breathing we do while exercising, for one. Think about how stuffy your nose gets when sitting or lying down for a long period of time. Almost miraculously, you can breathe again as soon as you stand up and walk around. “The deep breaths you take during aerobic exercise can help open up your airways and improve your symptoms,” Chutkan says.

There’s also the obvious psychological benefits exercise offers when we are feeling down and out, she adds. Feel-good hormones such as serotonin and endorphins are released in high levels during exercise, thus aiding in our recovery and giving us a mental boost.

But, Chutkan warns, there are clear signs when it’s time to take a day or two off. First, check if you have a fever. If so, say goodbye to Zumba class that night. Same goes for symptoms of chest congestion that make it difficult for you to breathe. Finally, if you feel achy, you certainly want to rest.

Two final pieces of advice: 1) Even if you’re just a tad congested, don’t expect to exercise as fast or as long as you normally do. While exercise can be beneficial, overdoing it may quickly turn a runny nose into something worse. 2) Whether you have the sniffles or the full-blown flu, you’re better off keeping to yourself. That means stick to at-home workout videos and solo runs, where you’re less likely to spread any germs to healthy gym-goers.