Should You Exercise With A Cold?
Ultimately, it’s a little unclear whether it’s fine to exercise with a cold, or if you should take a few days off until your sniffle goes away.
When you feel like total crap, skipping your workout is an obvious choice. But it’s a little different when you have a cold. Sure, you don’t feel as amazing as you could, but you’re not totally down and out, either.
Of course, you want to rest your body if that’s what you’re supposed to do but…is that actually going to do anything? Or is it just a lame excuse to ditch your regular exercise routine? And, sometimes it actually feels good to work out when you’re feeling meh, so is it possible that applies in this case, too?
Is it okay to exercise with a cold?
The answer is yes…ish, says Jessalyn Adam, MD, attending sports medicine physician at Baltimore’s Mercy Medical Center. In general, you want to follow the “neck rule.”
“If all of your symptoms are above the neck, you’re safe to work out. But if you have symptoms that are below the neck, then you probably shouldn’t exercise,” she says. “Whenever I have an athlete that wants to work out, that’s the rule we use.”
“You also shouldn’t have shortness of breath or a fever, if you decide to exercise with a cold,” adds Amesh Adalja, MD, infectious disease specialist, and senior scholar at Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security.
For a quick guide, remember these key points:
You’re okay to work out with:
- Runny nose
- Nasal congestion
- Sore throat
Don’t exercise if you have:
- A cough
- Shortness of breath
- Body aches
- General chest congestion
- A fever
Overall, regular exercise helps boost your immune system, but it’s important to go with how you feel, says Kenton Fibel, MD, a family medicine physician specializing in sports medicine at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles.
And as far as fitness helping you feel better, “Exercise releases a lot of hormones that may make you feel great, but that’s independent of having a cold,” says Dr. Adalja. So that concept may or may not apply when you’re not at your best.
Even if you’re “just” dealing with the common cold, you still shouldn’t feel obligated to go to the gym if you feel terrible. “In general, listen to your body and how you feel,” says Dr. Fibel.
Are any exercises better than others when you have a cold?
Just because you can work out doesn’t mean you should go all out. “This is not the time to go and do your most intense exercise routine,” Dr. Adam says. “Your body is still fighting an infectious disease.”
If you’re craving cardio, he recommends doing “light cardio” like a comfortable run, a light stationary bike workout, or a casual session on the elliptical. “Don’t go for as long as you normally would,” she says.
As for strength training, it can be challenging because a lot of times you’re already feeling fatigued, Dr. Adam says. “If you’re congested, it’s not a good idea to go with heavy weights, but lighter weights should be fine.” (Just wipe down the equipment well after you use it to do your fellow gym-goers a solid, Dr. Fibel advises.)
Does it matter if you exercise indoors or outdoors?
As far as weather goes, not really (provided we’re not talking extreme conditions here), Dr. Adam says. However, she points out, if you suffer from allergies on top of having the common cold, exercising outside during allergy season could be kind of miserable.
That said, “sometime cold air can trigger asthma like conditions, and colds can also provoke that phenomenon,” notes Dr. Adalja, “so in that context exercising in the cold air could be problematic.”
For indoor workouts, if you’re considering heading to a group fitness class, or cranking out strength training at a public gym…you may want to press pause. “If you are sneezing or coughing it probably makes sense to not expose others in an exercise class,” says Dr. Adalja. “Consider taking precautions by exercising at least six feet away from others, and not contaminating common surfaces.” And if you MUST use the gym equipment, be sure to wash your hands diligently before touching anything, then wipe down the tools once you’re done.
Whether you choose complete workout routine indoors or out, keep in mind that pushing your body too much—even if you feel like you can take it—can ultimately screw you over. “Exercising too hard when you’re sick can make it more difficult for your body to fight off the infection and can make it take longer for you to get better,” Dr. Fibel says.
What other precautions should you take?
While the “neck rule” is important to follow, there are some other nuances to consider. If you have a fever, you’re feeling really tired, you have nausea, or you have widespread muscle aches, don’t exercise, Dr. Adam says. Ditto if exercise makes you feel worse.
“It’s also important to make sure you’re adequately hydrated when working out while sick,” says Dr. Adalja, “since colds can be dehydrating.”
As for what to wear, there are no magic clothes that will help get rid of your cold during your workout (although there’s an idea…). “Just listen to your body,” Dr. Adam says. “If you’re feeling cold, make sure you have enough layers. Dress appropriately for the weather.”
If you’re still not sure if exercising with a cold makes sense for you, check with your doctor.
Bottom Line: If you want to exercise with a cold start slow and keep intensity light. Your body requires energy to fight the cold as well so make sure to supply your body with enough nutrition to maintain.