Should you work out when you are sick?

Sports Medicine

Working out while sick may not sound enjoyable, although a popular urban myth argues that a person can “sweat out” an illness through exercise. While this is not true in the strictest sense, working out while sick may be helpful in some cases.

In general, a person with symptoms in their head and nose, such as those of a head cold, may benefit from working out.

A person with symptoms in their chest or stomach or someone with a fever should avoid exercising, however. If symptoms get worse or working out causes pain, people are best to avoid working out while sick.

In this article, learn more about the benefits and risks of working out while sick.

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A person can usually engage in light exercise when they have symptoms of a head cold.

Typically, it is okay to exercise with the typical symptoms of a head cold. These include symptoms such as:

  • nasal congestion
  • runny nose
  • puffy or red eyes
  • tension headache

In some cases, these symptoms may actually improve with exercise. Exercise increases the heart rate and stimulates circulation, which might help the body release fluids.

It is vital to stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water when working out, especially if a person is sick.

It is also necessary to consider that different exercises will cause different reactions in the body. In general, it is best to avoid extremely strenuous workouts while sick. Instead, an individual should focus on lighter, movement based exercises that get the blood flowing without pushing the body too hard.

These activities might include:

  • walking
  • light jogging
  • leisurely riding a bicycle
  • swimming
  • tai chi
  • gentle yoga

The idea that a person can literally sweat out their illnesses through exercise is a myth. It may have stuck around for so long because regular exercise keeps the body healthy, and may boost the immune system.

However, as the authors of a 2018 study note, moderate exercise can reduce the risk of common respiratory illnesses, reduce their severity, and even shorten how long the person has symptoms.

These effects appear to have more to do with empowering the immune system to handle the illness better, and not how much people sweat out the illness while sick.

Mild exercise may also temporarily help with some symptoms, such as a runny nose or headache.

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People should usually avoid exercise if they are experiencing tightness in the chest.

It is essential to take certain precautions when it comes to working out while sick. For instance, a fever is a definite sign a person should not work out.

As a clinical review in the journal Sports Health notes, fever increases fluid loss in the body, decreases muscle strength, and makes a person feel more exhausted.

A fever also means the body is increasing its internal temperature to fight off an infection. Exercise raises body temperature, making a person feel even worse.

Symptoms in the ear are another factor to consider. These signs of illness may cause a person to feel dizzy or off balance, which could also pose risks if they are working out.

People experiencing dizziness may want to avoid working out until they are better.

Also, anyone with symptoms such as vomiting and diarrhea should avoid working out.

Exercise can cause the body to lose water through sweat. Since someone with diarrhea or vomiting is losing a lot of water already, working out may put them at risk for dehydration.

Chest symptoms are another sign that it is best to avoid working out. These symptoms may include:

  • tightness in the chest
  • difficulty breathing
  • coughing

Finally, even if a person only has mild symptoms, such as nasal congestion and sneezing, but they feel weak or unable to work out, it is important to rest.

Some activities may not be right for the body while a person is sick. The body is trying to recover, and pushing it too hard may make symptoms worse or the recovery time longer.

Workouts to avoid while sick include:

  • sprinting
  • strength training with heavy weights
  • endurance training, such as running for long periods
  • hot yoga
  • spin classes
  • Pilates
  • team sports, which can increase the risk of others getting sick

Anyone who chooses to work out while sick can keep the following tips in mind:

Stay hydrated

Hydration is always important but is vital while the body recovers from sickness. The body is likely already using extra fluid to move toxins. It may also be losing fluid from extra sweating and a runny nose.

Staying hydrated while working out and throughout the course of the sickness may help avoid the effects of dehydration.

Balance electrolytes

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Miso soup can help restore electrolytes after a workout.

Along with hydration, it is essential to find ways to replenish electrolyte salts while exercising.

Even a simple runny nose can use up electrolytes. Adding a sweaty workout to the mix means the person should take extra precautions.

Drinking liquids, such as coconut water, broth, miso soup, or sports drinks, may help restore these electrolytes and keep the body working as it should.

Eat a balanced diet

Along with regular exercise, eating a healthful diet that includes a variety of fruits and vegetables is one of the best ways to boost the immune system and prevent infection.

The body also needs these healthful nutrients while it is recovering from an infection.

Avoid overexertion

When someone is sick, their body is trying to fight off and recover from an illness. As such, it is crucial to keep exercise light. It may not be the best idea to push the body to its limits, such as doing sprints or heavy weightlifting.

A brisk walk or bike ride may be enough to get the blood flowing without pushing the body too hard.

Avoid the gym

As a consideration to other people, it may be a good idea to avoid exercising in an enclosed space with shared equipment, such as the gym.

Some gyms even have rules that prohibit people from exercising while sick. Instead, they can choose to exercise at home or outdoors.

Listen to the body

Most importantly, listen to the body. If a person feels exhausted just a few minutes into working out, it is probably time to stop.

It may be inconvenient, but it is much better to give the body a chance to recover and then go back to the usual exercise routine.

Choosing to work out while sick or not is an individual matter in most cases.

Light to moderate exercise may help boost the immune system to avoid sickness, and when someone is already sick, it may also help increase circulation to reduce some symptoms of a head cold.

It is important to avoid heavy or very strenuous exercise. People with more severe symptoms, such as those with a fever or a heavy cough, should also avoid exercise.

Overall, it is important to listen to the body and to stop working out if a person feels exhausted or too ill.

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