Should You Be Working Out When You're Sick?

sick woman in bed looking at a thermometer
Working out when you're sick has its benefits, but you should be careful not to spread germs at the gym.

by Steven Auger

No one likes being sick. The constant sneezing, stuffed up nose, deep chest cough and sleepless nights can really get in the way of everyday life.

If you're dedicated to your fitness routine, being sick can certainly put a damper on your workout plans. So how do you determine if you should be working out when you're sick? Several factors play into that decision.

Use Your Head

An easy way to determine if you should be working out when you're sick involves identifying where your symptoms are, explains Dr. Drew Watson in Men's Health. That is, are your symptoms above or below your neck?

For symptoms above the neck, such as sneezing, congestion or a sore throat, you can work out — but you should scale down your intensity level to light or moderate. Taking a non-drowsy decongestant can help alleviate the symptoms.

However, symptoms below the neck (or throughout the body) are a different story. These include shortness of breath, coughing, fever, vomiting and diarrhea. Illnesses of that severity necessitate skipping your workout and possibly seeking medical assistance, as they could be a sign of a more significant illness.

Exercise and Your Immune System

Exercise provides a lot of benefits. It decreases the chance of heart disease while keeping your bones strong and healthy. Whether or not exercise benefits the immune system isn't known for sure, but there are a few theories related to exercise and warding off illness, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) notes.

Exercise is believed to delay the release of stress hormones. Lowering levels of stress hormones can possibly guard against illness. Physical activity, such as exercise, is also believed to purge the lungs and airways of bacteria. Again, this can help reduce your chances of getting a cold or flu.

The increase in body temperature during and after exercise could help prevent bacteria from growing in the body. Also, exercise is thought to help white blood cells — the body's immune system — detect illnesses earlier than normal. It's important not to overdo it, though. If you begin to feel worse than you did when you started the workout, take a break or try to get some rest instead.

Balancing the Benefits

So, you have a head cold. And, since you love working out, you've made the decision to still hit the gym. The conventional thinking is that working out is a good way to sweat out all of the harmful germs making you sick.

Unfortunately, you aren't affecting the cold symptoms like you think you are, explains According to a study led by Thomas G. Weidner, Ph.D., a professor of athletic training at Ball State University, working out at a moderate intensity level when you have a cold has no impact - positive or negative - on your symptoms. However, working out at a high intensity when you're sick tends to produce a negative impact on your immune system.

Sharing Isn't Always Caring

If you are sick but choose to work out, show some consideration to your fellow gym-goers. That is, do your best to avoid spreading your germs and contaminating others.

This can be accomplished by wiping down equipment after use, washing your hands and coughing (and sneezing) into the fold of your elbow. Some gyms have sanitizer dispensers placed throughout the building. Use them liberally, as your hands will be touching everything from machines to free weights to benches.

The gym is many things to many people. But when you're sick, you're sick. Be honest, evaluate your symptoms and decide for yourself whether you should really be working out.

As always, please consult with a physician prior to beginning any exercise program. See full medical disclaimer here.