Should You Exercise While Sick?

Do you sweat it out? Or rest and recover?

Man with a cold or flu.
Andersen Ross/Getty Images

What happens to your workout when you’re under the weather? Do you hit the couch or suck it up and exercise anyway? Dr. John Berardi has the answer.

You love your workout routine and that’s awesome.

But what happens when you get sick? Is staying in bed the right thing to do? Or should you just ‘man-up’ and stick to your training schedule no matter what?

Let me break it down for you.

First, let’s define what we mean by “exercise”.

 For some, exercise is a walk in the park (literally). For others, it’s an intense two-hour CrossFit class.

The latter – or any type of structured workout routine that gets you breathing heavily, sweating, and working hard – awakens a stress response in the body that can overload the immune system when you’re sick.

But the former – a gentle walk while breathing in some fresh air – might be just what the doctor ordered.

Feeling under the weather? Try non-strenuous movement.

Assuming your sickness is of the cold/headache/stress/kinda crummy variety (and not of the feverish, achy, nauseated sort), a little non-strenuous movement might actually help.

“Non-strenuous movement” might include:

  • walking (preferably outdoors)

  • low intensity cycling (again, outdoors)

  • practicing T’ai Chi or gentle yoga

All of these activities have been shown to boost immunity. They aren’t intense enough to create serious immune-compromising stress on the body.

Instead, they can actually help you feel better and recover faster while feeling under the weather.

Unless you’re feeling like a train wreck I typically recommend low intensity, low heart rate “cardio” during the first few days of sickness. Generally I prefer 20-30 minute walks done either outside (in the sunshine) or on a home treadmill.

If you keep the intensity low and your heart rate down you’ll end up feeling better during the activity. And you’ll likely stimulate your immune system and speed up your recovery as a bonus.

But don’t kick your immune system while it’s down.

On the other hand, when you’re sick, your immune system is already compromised. And high intensity or long duration exercise sessions can interfere with immune function.

That’s why exercise beyond the low to moderate variety are best avoided when sick.

Feeling sick? Here’s what you should skip:

  • heavy strength training

  • endurance training

  • high intensity interval training

  • sprinting or power activities

  • team sports

  • exercise in extreme temperatures

  • anything that feels overly stressful, uncomfortable, or exhausting

Remember, a low to moderate intensity workout will leave you feeling energized. A high intensity workout, on the other hand, delivers an ass-kicking.

If you’re sick, it makes sense to avoid the ass-kicking.

(For a more comprehensive article discussing exactly what you should do - and avoid - when you're sick, click here.)

Can exercise prevent you from getting sick?

Once you’re feeling better, ease back into exercise in proportion to the length of your sickness. For example, if you were sick for 3 days, take 3 days to ease back into the level you were previously training at.

(Remember: some illnesses can indicate serious infections. So if you aren’t feeling better and recovering, see your doctor.)

Among the many great benefits of exercise is a strengthened immune system. Consistent, moderate exercise and resistance training can bolster your immune system, not just your biceps. So, by all means, train hard while you’re healthy.

Just remember to manage extreme variations in stress levels, get plenty of sleep, and wash your hands. Do those things along with your regular workouts and you probably won’t get sick as often.

Keep your gym germ-free.

Final note, guys: If you’re sick, stay out of the gym. Viruses spread by contact and breathing the air near sick people. Nobody wants your sick germs.

So, if you feel up to physical activity, do it outside or at home.

And if not, consider this your official permission to go back to bed.


Want some help finding the eating, exercise, and lifestyle advice for you? Download this free guide: Fitness for men: The busy man's guide to getting in shape and living better.


And for more about Dr. John Berardi, including links to his latest men's health articles, click here.

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