We all know exercise is good for the body, but what about when you’re feeling under the weather? Is it better to “sweat it out” or rest up instead? Ultimately the answer might be a personal preference, but there are some general guidelines that can help you know if you should exercise, and what kind to do, if you come down with something.
The ultimate gauge of whether or not you should exercise is always how you feel.
Exercise and the Immune System
First, it’s important to remember there’s a difference between moving your body and performing a rigorous workout where you’re breathing hard, sweating and feeling some discomfort. The latter, while beneficial in many ways, does elicit a stress response in the body—even when you’re healthy. “There is literature that shows prolonged, vigorous exercise—greater than 1.5 hours—can make an individual more susceptible to infection, especially when they haven’t eaten enough,” says Natasha Kassam, ND. “However, consistent resistance training and consistent moderate cardiovascular exercise seems to strengthen the immune system.”
Should You Exercise When Sick?
But what about when you’re feeling sick? Does exercise work the same way then? A few studies have tried to answer this question. In the first trial, participants were tested for lung function and exercise capacity. Then they were infected with a cold virus. Two days later when symptoms were at their worst, they were reassessed while doing moderate and intense treadmill workouts. Turns out, having a cold had no effect on their lung function or exercise capacity.
The second study looked at recovery time. Healthy participants were once again infected with a cold. Half the group was asked to do a 40-minute moderate treadmill workout every other day, while the second half simply rested. In the end, there was no difference in symptoms or the time it took to recover from the cold. However, not only did the exercisers report feeling okay after working out, several said they actually felt better.
Guidelines for Exercising When Sick
Of course, the ultimate gauge of whether or not you should exercise is always how you feel; but if you sense you are up for it, non-strenuous movement shouldn’t hurt you—and might even help. Below are Dr. Kassam’s general recommendations:
When to Get Moving
Symptoms: Congestion, sore throat, mild cough, temp below 100.4˚ F
Exercise: Low-intensity movement such as walking, gentle yoga, tai chi, gardening
Recommendation: 30 minutes or less
When to Rest Up
Symptoms: Significant malaise, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, significant head pain
Recommendation: Rest and stay hydrated. If symptoms continue for three days with no change, consult a physician.