You’ve been hitting the gym hard and you’re starting to see some real progress. Feeling motivated and excited, when a wave of illness hits, it seems like a cruel karmic joke. But wait! Should you exercise while sick? Can you?
The answer is the usual “it depends.” Yes, you can exercise while sick, but you need to be smart about it, take it easy, and work out accordingly. With flu season upon us and myriad varieties of colds and other illnesses going around, there’s a chance you may find your well-laid-workout plans sidelined when you least expect it. But, you may be able to get in a workout after all. Here’s what to do.
When to Workout and When Not to Workout
While there are definitely times to push yourself, there are also times when your body could benefit from some extra rest. Knowing the difference between the two is important, especially when it comes to sickness.
Studies show that determining where your symptoms are occurring will help you decide if you should move forward with an exercise program or not. 1 According to Thomas Weidner, head of athletic training at Ball State University, if your symptoms are considered to be “above the neck”—as in a head cold, runny nose, sinusitis, etc.—then you can consider exercise a safe option. He says exercising with this type of sickness doesn’t make you feel any worse, so you may as well go ahead and exercise. He even goes on to report that some folks felt slightly better after working out than they had beforehand, despite being sick.
It’s important to remember, however, that if you’re contagious, it’s not fair to everyone else if you show up and spread your germs around. So, please be cognizant of the health and wellbeing of others before venturing to the gym while sick.
Alternatively, if your symptoms are below the neck, like gastric distress, for example, then it’s best to hunker down and ride out the sickness until you’re feeling better and your symptoms have passed.
Did You Know: strenuous exercise may actually help prevent illness? It’s true! Scientists have found that exercising strenuously at least three times a week (more is better, in this case) showed a decrease in the amount of sick leave people took from work.2 Researchers also say exercise while sick may help you recover more quickly from your illness as well.
Try This Simple Recovery Workout
Clearly, working out while sick is going to be personal choice and boil down to a number of factors. How hard you decide to push yourself should, of course, depend on how you feel, whether or not you are contagious, and the type of symptoms you are experiencing.
If you do, however, choose to engage in exercise while sick, and you can do so safely while being mindful of others, then it’s a good idea to scale it back a bit and take it easy in the gym. Common sense says it’s best to cut your workout intensity down if you’re not feeling 100%. You may also want to pull back on the intensity of your workouts until you’re fully back in gear so you don’t set yourself back in the healing process.
Again, if your symptoms are above the neck (e.g., cold symptoms), then you can ease into some resistance training as long as you keep the volume low. Try this full-body workout plan:
Exercise While Sick: Full Body Recovery Workout
**Do 15 repetitions of each exercise, 3 times a week.
Pushups—Begin in a plank position with your arms straight and directly under your shoulders. Lower your body by bending at the elbows. Keeping your back and glutes in a straight line, lower yourself until your chest is near the ground. You can perform these with your knees on the ground if you’re not able to perform a regular pushup.
Lat Pulldown Machine—If you have access to gym equipment, you can do these on a machine. Grab the overhead bar with your palms facing forward and your arms spaced slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Sit down on the attached seat and hook your knees underneath the pads. Picture trying to squeeze your elbows together behind your back (even though you can’t—it just helps you focus on the correct muscles) as you pull the bar down to your chest. The bar should come fairly close to your face and can lightly touch your chest. Pause and then extend your arms, keeping control of the bar.
Shoulder Press—Sitting on a bench, start with your palms facing forward and your elbows bent at 90 degrees, and raise your arms until your triceps (the back of your arms) are parallel to the floor. Press the weight upward at a slight angle and touch the ends of the dumbbells together at the top of the movement. Lower the weights back to the starting position with a controlled motion, and repeat.
Triceps Pushdown—Using a cable system, stand straight, place hands on bar, palms facing down with your upper arms parallel to the floor. Press the bar straight down and allow it to come back up to parallel with a controlled movement.
Biceps Curl—With a dumbbell in each hand and palms facing forward, place your elbows by your sides. Lift the dumbbell in your right hand by bending your arm upward and make sure to keep your elbow pinned at your side. Repeat with the other arm to complete one set.
Body Squats—Stand with your feet hip-width apart. Using your own weight, clasp your hands behind your neck, and sit back (squat down) until your thighs are parallel to the floor (do not go down past parallel). Squeeze your legs and gluteus muscles to help you return to a standing position. Repeat.
Calves—With a dumbbell in each hand, lift your body up onto your toes and hold for a count of 10 and then lower.
Plank—Begin on your hands and knees. Lower yourself onto your elbows with your body straight and try to hold this position for 20 – 30 seconds.
Other Options to Try When Feeling Sick
If you still want to work out or at least move your body, and the above workout isn’t appealing to you, you can try one of the following exercises while sick:
Yoga—you may want to just stick with the basics while under the weather. Yoga, in and of itself, is less stressful on the body and more soothing than many other forms of exercise, and a good choice while sick. Go with a gentle session rather than a fast-paced or more advanced session.
Walking—a gentle walk outdoors can do wonders for your psyche and your immune system. And, the sunshine and fresh air will probably feel good, too.
Swimming—a soothing and gentle swim in warm water can be a nice deviation from your normal, more strenuous workouts. Try this to branch out and even ease your symptoms. (And finish off with a soothing sauna to help enhance immune function.) Just make sure you’re no longer contagious as you definitely don’t want to share.
Exercise While Sick: A Recap
Before you know it, you’ll be back to feeling like your usual self and back to your usual workout routine. In the meantime, remember to nourish your body with extra rest, nutrients, plenty of water, and build up your immune system to help avoid getting sick again.