When Can You Exercise While You Are Sick, and When You Can Not?

Common sense dictates that you shouldn’t play sports when you are not feeling well, but there are a few exceptions. If you’re worried that illness is misleading you towards your fitness goals, here’s what you need to know.

As most coaches and doctors will tell you (and as youtuber PictureFit explains in this video ), the general rule of thumb is “check above or below the neck.” If you have symptoms above the neck, such as coughing, sneezing, sore throat, or nasal congestion, you can probably still exercise. These symptoms don’t indicate anything too serious – most often an allergy or a minor cold – so if you feel like you’re ready to exercise, it’s probably okay.

But if you have symptoms below the neck, it is best to take a day off. These include fever, fatigue, and body aches, so if you have COVID or the flu, you should probably take a break. The same goes for symptoms like vomiting or even a wet cough because it is caused by chest congestion.

There is another potential problem with COVID and, as some doctors have argued, with viral diseases in general. Exercising in these conditions can increase the chances of developing heart inflammation . It’s unclear how common this inflammation is or how severe it might be, but you can proceed with caution until we know more.

Either way, if you feel like you need a rest, don’t push yourself. It is better to skip a few workouts than prolong the illness and skip a bunch of them.

If you do decide to exercise, relax. Hard training requires a lot of recovery, which we usually think of in terms of food and sleep, but now those body functions should fuel your post-workout recovery and your recovery from illness. In this way, you can reduce the intensity and / or duration of your workout. If you are exercising, do a light set of five or 10 reps instead of testing one rep. If you are a jogger, do light jogging instead of hill sprints or long distance running.

While you are doing this, do not forget to drink and monitor your well-being. If at any point your symptoms worsen, stop and rest. Finally, and most importantly, don’t go to the gym or other place where people might come into contact with your germs. Just because you want to exercise doesn’t mean other people want to get sick.

This article was originally published in 2016 by Patrick Allan and was updated in October 2020 by Beth Skorecki to clarify recommendations and include some information pertaining to COVID-19.

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