Should you exercise with a cold? Advice from a doctor on how to work out when you’re sick

Posted by for Strong Women

Should you exercise when feeling ill? We asked a doctor whether working out when poorly is ever a good idea.

The winter is (hopefully) drawing to a close, but that doesn’t mean that the colds and flu we associate with the season are going anywhere. Those sore throats, blocked noses and foggy heads are more than just annoying – they interrupt your entire routine, meaning you might not be able to get into work, you’ll cancel your social plans and as for the gym? Probably not on your mind. 

But the government guidelines recommend 150 minutes of heart-raising activity and two weight-bearing sessions a week. And doing a moderate amount of exercise can actually boost your immune system and in turn prevent you from getting sick. So should you really be skipping exercise?

Strong Women spoke to Dr Claudia Pastides, a GP for digital health service Babylon, to clear up the minefield about when and how to exercise if you’ve been struck down by the cold. 

Should you work out with a cold?

“There’s nothing to say that you shouldn’t exercise with a run-of-the-mill head cold,” says Dr Pastides, which might not be the answer you were looking for if you’re trying to convince yourself you’re too sniffly for the gym. “Of course if you’re feeling incredibly unwell you might not want to exercise, but medically there’s no reason why you shouldn’t.”

Can you sweat out a cold?

When you have a cold you might notice your temperature rising – that’s because a warmer body will fight the infection more efficiently. There’s a myth that by exercising we can raise our internal temperature and ‘sweat out the cold’ – but before you head for the gym in your thermals, read this from Dr Pastides: “Your body needs to raise its temperature by itself in order to fight the infection – you can’t create that environment for your body by going for a run or to the gym”.

woman pajamas sick ill cold flu tea
Should you exercise with a cold?: Dr. Pastides says it's a myth that we can ‘sweat out a cold’ by exercising. Our bodies must naturally raise their own temperature in order to fight infection – not by going for a run or to the gym.

How sick is too sick to exercise?

So working out through a head cold is ok, but when does that get bad enough to press pause on your routine? “It sounds like common sense, but if you’re feeling like you can’t get out of bed then I really don’t think you need to push yourself to exercise,” says Dr Pastides. When that cold becomes a flu, exercise is definitely a no-go. Dr Pastides prescribes rest if you feel faint, are struggling to breathe and/or have aching muscles (not including post-gym DOMS). “Our bodies are very clever and tell us when we need to let ourselves recover.”

What exercise should be avoided with a cold?

Dr Pastides recommends avoiding anything too vigorous if you’re not 100%, and especially anything that will get you too out of breathe if you can’t breathe through your nose. “Just be sensible and listen to your body,” she says. “Sometimes it’s best to take the time to recover and take your exercise through daily walks.”

In the end, exercising won’t make the cold go away any faster, so it’s better to rest and let your body concentrate on fighting the infection.

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