You've got a miserable cold, but are anxious to get up and around again. Is it okay to hop on the treadmill, or will that use up energy that you need to fight off the bug?
Use good judgment, doctors say. It's usually all right to exercise as long as you feel okay, your symptoms are minor, and you don't overdo it. But going to the gym and pushing yourself too hard is not a good idea. Vigorous exercise can stress the immune system. Also keep in mind that you might spread your illness to others. Wash your hands with soap and water frequently or use hand sanitizer.
Symptoms above the neck: Some experts say that exercise in moderation is fine if your symptoms are mild and above the neck - such as a stuffy nose, sneezing, or scratchy throat. Just be sensible and reduce the length and intensity of your workout. Think "low-impact." For example, if you usually jog 30 minutes, consider a 15-minute walk instead. But remember, feeling sick may be a sign that your body needs a rest.
Symptoms below the neck: Exercise is not usually advised if you have symptoms below the neck, such as muscle aches, vomiting, diarrhea, chills, or a cough. And don't exercise if you have fever or feel extremely tired. In all these cases, working out could put stress on the immune system that could hamper recovery or make you feel worse.
Easy does it
When your illness seems to be letting up, slowly work back into your fitness routine. Give yourself several days of rest after a bad cold and at least a week or so after the flu before you go full-tilt. Depending on how sick you were and what your doctor advises, you may need to wait up to 2 weeks before hitting the gym again.
When resuming workouts, limit the intensity and duration of your sessions for a few days or weeks after your illness. Perhaps plan on exercising half your usual time. Or go half-speed on aerobics and lift less weight until you regain your endurance and strength. When you find that you are no longer exhausted, you'll know it's time to ease back into your regular routine.
Don't worry about losing the fitness gains you made before you were sick. Taking a little time off doesn't mean you have to go back to square one. On the other hand, working out too soon or too hard before you are fully recovered can put you back in the sick bay.
It's not just a cold
What about other types of illnesses? Exercise used to be discouraged if a person had certain chronic conditions. But it's now known that exercise can actually be helpful in treating some conditions, as long as the disease is stable and symptoms are under control. For instance:
- Exercise is often an important part of recovery after a heart attack, when cleared by a doctor first. Cardiac rehabilitation (rehab) is a medically supervised program that includes exercise training, education on heart-healthy living, and counseling to reduce stress. This program helps people with heart problems return to an active life.
- Certain forms of exercise can help to ease pain, and increase flexibility and strength if you have chronic back pain.
- Exercise has been shown to reduce fatigue in some people with cancer - both during and after treatment.
- If you have diabetes, exercise can help your body "use up" sugar that can damage your body. Your doctor can give you guidelines to follow based on your blood glucose readings.
- Muscle-building exercises, such as lifting light weights, may improve strength in people with certain chronic diseases.
- Weight-bearing exercise can often help prevent further bone loss in those with osteoporosis.
If you have a chronic disease or condition, you're overweight, or you've been inactive for awhile, check with your doctor before you increase your physical activity.
Created on 01/13/2000
Updated on 09/06/2011
- National Institute on Aging and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Is it safe for me to exercise?
- American Cancer Society. Nutrition and physical activity during and after cancer treatment: answers to common questions.
- American College of Sports Medicine. Exercise and the common cold.