Feeling under the weather doesn't mean you should eliminate exercise completely—but take some extra precautions.
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For some people, taking a day or two off from the gym is no biggie (and maybe even a blessing). But if you faithfully do #yogaeverydamnday or can't stand to skip spin class, you're probably wondering if your cold warrants missing your workout. (Related: Sweat or Skip? When to Work Out and When to Pass)
When Working Out While Sick Is Fine
The short answer: It depends on your symptoms and what kind of workout you're doing. "Generally, if your symptoms are above the neck, such as a mild sore throat, runny nose, or watery eyes, it's okay to exercise," says Navya Mysore, M.D., a primary care provider and medical director at One Medical in NYC.
However, if you're experiencing symptoms in the chest area and below, such as coughing, wheezing, diarrhea, or vomiting, it's better to take a break, says Dr. Mysore. And if you have a fever or you're short of breath, definitely skip it.
You're not crazy if you think working out while sick makes you feel like you're on the upswing; you can blame those post-workout endorphins for the temporary "I'm feeling better" rush after a sweat sesh. That doesn't mean it's good for you in the long run, though. Think about it this way: Your body needs to use all its reserves to heal, explains Stephanie Gray, D.N.P., nurse practitioner and author of Your Longevity Blueprint. "When you're dealing with a major infection, intense exercise can actually prolong your recovery," she says. (More on that here: That Really Hard Workout Might Be Making You Sick)
When Exercising Can Actually Help You
Here's the catch: Certain kinds of calming exercises—like walking, stretching, and light yoga—may actually help ease certain conditions such as colds, menstrual cramps, or constipation.
"Gentle exercise promotes blood flow and reduces stress on the body, allowing it to work harder to fight off infection," explains Gray. And if you're mildly to moderately constipated, moving around can help get your digestive system back on track, says Dr. Mysore.
Also, heat may help you feel better—with a caveat. "The idea that you can 'sweat it out' is a little bit of an old wives tale—you can't 'sweat out' a virus," says Dr. Mysore. "However, if you feel congested and the heat of a sauna or a hot yoga class helps you breathe easier, then great." (BTW, here's the truth about whether you can sweat out alcohol or not.)
It also may help prevent future infections: One 2017 study found that "frequent" sauna baths helped reduce the risk of respiratory conditions such as asthma or pneumonia. Plus, exercising, in general, helps build up your immunity, adds Dr. Mysore. "Working out three to four times per week (30 to 40 minutes per workout) will help your body fight off illness and infection in the winter time," she says.
It's important to note that if you're dealing with a cold, some yoga poses (think downward dog) may lead to worse nasal congestion and discomfort, says Gray. In that case, skip it, and relax in a hot sauna instead. And if you are experiencing diarrhea, you're likely already dehydrated, so avoid sweating, which may worsen your symptoms, says Dr. Mysore. (Related: This Is the Best Way to Fight a Cold)
If you choose to work out while sick, there are a few red flags to watch for: If your muscles are feeling fatigued and achy, if your breathing is off, or if you feel feverish and weak, definitely stop and go home, she says.
Precautions to Take When Working Out While Sick
Remember: It's not just about you. "If you're contagious with a virus, a cough, or a cold, be polite to those around you—take it easy and stay home," suggests Gray. Plus, gyms aren't the cleanest places and visiting them while sick is pretty risky since your immune system is already being taxed.
When you're under the weather, it's a better idea to go for a walk outside or a do a home workout if possible, says Dr. Mysore. But if you do hit the gym, make sure you wipe down machines, cover your mouth if you cough or sneeze, and don't leave Kleenex lying around.
You also want to prep your body by providing it with the proper nutrients and hydration before a workout. "Drink plenty of water, and consider coconut water or adding an electrolyte powder to your water when you're sick," says Gray. A high-quality capsule multivitamin—as well as nutrients such as magnesium, zinc, vitamin C—are also excellent to add to your routine.
One last point: "I know it can be hard for gym rats to slow down, but it's generally super helpful and your body will be appreciative and receptive to taking a break," says Dr. Mysore. If you're afraid of losing your #gainz, don't worry too much—you'll be feeling better and back at it before you start to lose any cardio or strength.