Exercise Do’s and Don’ts When Feeling Ill

How to Help--Not Hinder--the Healing Process


Originally published in Massage & Bodywork magazine, December/January 2003.

Most people get hit with allergies, colds and other minor ailments throughout the winter months, and when they do, the issue of exercise often arises. Should you skip exercise altogether until the bout passes?

Or should you tell your trainer you need to work extra hard to build up your immunity? Or, conversely, should you shift your workout to a lower intensity? With few hard-and-fast rules existing regarding exercise and illness, refer to the following “do’s and
don’ts” when determining whether working out will help or hurt your physical condition.

DO a “neck check” of your symptoms first. If you have “above the neck” signs, such as a runny nose, sneezing or a sore throat, moderate exercise is generally safe as long as you do not have a fever. You can resume intense workouts as soon as the symptoms disappear. If you have “below the neck” signs, such as extreme tiredness, muscle aches, vomiting, diarrhea, chills, swollen lymph glands or a hacking cough, allow at least two weeks before returning to intense training.

DON’T exercise with a fever. Fever (a body temperature above 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit) signifies you are doing battle with a virus. Exercising during these conditions increases risk of dehydration, heatstroke and even heart failure.

DO modify your exercise intensity. If you have cold or flu symptoms, you cannot “power” away your ailment through more intense workouts. In fact, you might make your illness worse. Moderate exercise, however, is fine for mild cold symptoms, as long as your heart rate and body temperature do not increase excessively.

DON’T overtrain or stress out. Overtraining can lead to suppressed immune function and exposure to opportunistic infections. However, choosing activities you enjoy and can do consistently may improve your exercise adherence and immune function. Researchers have found a link between regular exercise and improved immune function response. During moderate exercise, immune cells circulate more quickly through your body and are better at destroying viruses and bacteria.

DO use common sense. It is difficult to exercise when you’re coughing and sniffling, so consider staying home to rest and drink plenty of fluids.

DON’T let a temporary illness stop you permanently. Focus on flexibility, stress management and mind-body awareness during down times. Plan on resuming your activity program as soon as you can, rather than letting yourself drift into sedentary habits.

DO return to exercise when you’re ready. Making up for time missed in the gym can drain your immune system all over again. Exercise for two days at a lower intensity for each day you were sick. Give your body the time it needs to recover.

DON’T hesitate to consult your doctor. Even if an illness is minor, check with your physician if you are seriously concerned. As always, better safe than sorry.