Like most people I know right now, I’m sick. And, like most people would, I’ve been using it as an excuse to sleep in and not work out. But after taking a few days off I’m starting to miss the feeling I get post-gym, and I’m starting to worry that if I get out of the habit of my morning work out I won’t get back into it. I feel like its time to get back to my normal routine – but will exercising actually make me feel worse instead of better?
Should You Work Out When You’re Sick?
Short answer: yes, if you want to, and depending on your symptoms.
Before we get into it, I have to emphasize the ‘neck rule’. If your symptoms are above the neck (sneezing, sinus congestion, mild cough, etc) it is generally considered safe to work out. If you’re experiencing fever, body aches or pains, a rough cough with chest pain, or nausea (duh) breaking a sweat could actually make you feel worse. Trust your body. If you don’t feel ready to workout, don’t. If your symptoms persist for more than two weeks, see your doctor.
Having said that, people who work out regularly and are fit tend to feel worse when they don’t work out. Studies have shown that moderate exercise can help boost your immune system, and alleviate some of the symptoms of a cold (although it can’t shorten the duration of a cold), so easing back into working out is the best bet. In fact, intense exercise can actually work to suppress your immune system, so make sure you don’t over-exert yourself.
If you’re determined to get active, here are some dos and don’ts for getting back to working out when you’re sick.
How to Work Out When You’re Sick
DO: Stay away from people until you’re no longer contagious. This means five full days when you have a cold. Stay away from the gym, team sports, and classes of any kind until you’re past this mark.
DO: Stick to low-intensity workouts. Walking is perfect, because your energy levels will likely be down, and even a 20-minute walk can benefit you. Even better, walking can stimulate deep breathing and help open your plugged sinuses. If jogging/running is part of your usual routine, a scaled-back jog can work as well.
DON’T: Train for a marathon. Too much, or too intense, exercise can inhibit your immune system, so keep your workouts shorter and gentler than normal. Studies have shown that immune function can be suppressed for up to 24 hours after a prolonged workout.
DO: Yoga. Especially a slower style, like Hatha. Stress relieving techniques like yoga or even just stretching can help you to relax, which can ease a cough. Reducing stress is also good for your immune system. Bonus: there are a ton of yoga videos on YouTube, making it super easy to do at home under quarantine.
DO: Use good gym etiquette. I mean, all the time, come on. But especially when you’re sick. Think how you would feel if the woman on the next machine was sneezing all over you. If you’re coughing or sneezing excessively, or dripping mucus, think about working out at home (maybe even in bed). If you do venture out to the gym, make sure you take a towel and put it down on every surface you touch, wipe all the equipment down after you use it, and make sure to cover your mouth if you have to cough or sneeze. Try not to be constantly blowing your nose. Be aware that germs can spread super easily on gym equipment and in the locker room, so wash your hands frequently.
DON’T: Lift heavy weights. When you have a cold your strength and energy will both be sapped. Plus you may be taking medication that makes you a little out of it, and you may not be sleeping well. All this puts you at increased risk of injury while trying to lift heavy weights. If you still want to lift, choose lighter weights than usual, and increase reps, not weight, if you feel its too easy. An injury will keep you out of the gym for a lot longer than a cold.
DO: Stay hydrated. Again, always, but especially when you’re getting over a cold. Staying hydrated will help loosen up stuffiness and congestion. Water with lemon is good choice. Sports drinks are not – too much added sugar. If your illness has you so dehydrated that you need a sports drink, you definitely shouldn’t be working out.
DO: End your workout with a nutrient-packed smoothie. Many people lose their appetites a bit when they’re sick, but if you’re going to work out, you need to make sure to refuel. Try a smoothie – the soft texture and cold temperature make it soothing for a sore throat, and it’s a great way to get a lot nutrients at once. Spirulina is a fantastic addition, as it is often lauded as the most nutrient-dense food on the planet. It’s a great source of protein, calcium, iron, and vitamins B1, B2, and B3. Blend that with some fruits and veggies and some protein powder, you’ll be feeling better in no time!
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