There is definitely some confusion around the question of whether you should exercise when you’re sick, and no one answer applies. Depending on the person, some tend to push themselves when they really should rest, and others tend to rest when, in reality, a certain amount of exercise could actually help them heal faster.
In this article, we’ll take a look at when you should stay home and rest, and when exercise is actually a good idea.
So, when should I exercise?
If you only have a head cold:
Generally speaking, if you are experiencing symptoms that are above the neck, you are okay to exercise and a certain amount of exertion and raising of the body temperature might actually kick your immune system into high gear and help you recover faster. These symptoms would include sinus congestion, headache, sore throat, sneezing, etc. If you have the energy to exercise, do so at a lower intensity than you might normally workout, whether that entails your normal workout at about 70% intensity, a brisk walk or leisurely swim.
In fact, one study showed that people with symptoms of a cold that exercised for 40 minutes, every other day, at 70% of their maximum heart rate felt much better than those who remained sedentary. The key to exercising if you have a cold is listening to your body, and being sure not to over-exercise, depending on your level of fatigue. However, remember that raising your body temperature helps to fight certain viruses.
To improve the symptoms of joint pain, stiffness or osteoarthritis:
Though it might seem counter-intuitive, a certain degree of exercise to relieve joint pain or support osteoarthritis is key for strengthening important muscles, increasing flexibility and correcting muscle imbalances. Certain types of exercise that can be hard on particular joints should be avoided, according to which joints are affected by pain or arthritis (such as running with arthritic knees), but many types of exercise are of utmost importance. Also remember that osteoarthritis is often caused (in part) or worsened by obesity, so exercise for weight loss becomes extremely helpful.
If possible, hire a qualified personal trainer or physical therapist to help develop a plan that is appropriate for your body. While a certain degree of pain is okay, any pain that lasts for 2 or more hours post-exercise probably means you pushed too far, or chose exercises that are not appropriate for your body.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS):
Interestingly, digestive symptoms from IBS can be improved through exercise (along with dietary changes). One study concluded that particularly for symptoms of cramping, bloating, diarrhea and/or constipation, 43% of participants with IBS showed an improvement in their symptoms.
Other, more serious conditions that have been shown to improve with moderate exercise include cancer, chronic pain, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and those recovering from minor surgeries. However, these situations should always be discussed with a doctor or trusted medical professional who more intimately knows your specific situation and medical history.
When shouldn’t I exercise?
Now that we’ve covered the times that exercise can be highly beneficial, let’s look at when it is truly best to stay home and rest. When we really are sick, intense exercise can have a negative effect and slow healing. This is because exercise produces the stress hormone, cortisol, which suppresses our immune system. On the contrary, light to moderate exercise (in certain situations) can boost immune system function.
Avoid exercise completely if you have these below the neck symptoms:
- Body aches and pains
- Bad chest congestion and coughing
Remember that the single most important thing when deciding whether or not to exercise when sick is listening to your body. If your body is begging you to rest, allow it the time it needs to fight whatever bacterial or viral infection is causing symptoms. If you begin exercising and feel exhausted, stop or take the intensity down. A simple walk might be just what you need to feel better.
Don’t forget nutrition!
Whether you’re in bed or at the gym, your body’s nutritional needs are higher when fighting off an illness. Feed it with the nutrients necessary to heal quickly, such as homemade bone or vegetable broth, herbal teas with lemon and a pinch of cayenne pepper, chicken soup (not out of a can), mineral-packed superfoods like seaweed and foods high in zinc, such as raw oysters. Staying well hydrated with plenty of water and avoiding refined sugar and carbohydrates will go a long way in aiding the recovery process.