Should you continue to exercise with a cold? This is a question many people will be asking during these winter months when cold viruses tend to spread. Once you’ve established a workout routine you may be hesitant to skip a workout out of fear you could derail your progress.
As a regular exerciser, and a person who gets sick once or twice a year, this is a predicament I’m all too familiar with. One part of me feels that it would be better to rest and save my energy for fighting the illness. Another part wonders if getting a workout in will give my immune system the boost it needs to get over the cold quickly.
Exercising When Sick: The Research
There are a couple studies that have looked at whether it’s better or worse to exercise with a cold. The first looked at the ability to exercise with a cold and the second looked at the effect exercise had on the duration of symptoms.
Research in one study investigated if being infected with a cold virus would limit a person’s capacity to exercise. The study was done using a the common upper respiratory illness. After comparing the results against healthy control subjects, the researchers found that a cold has no effect on lung function or exercise capacity.
Duration of Symptoms
Researchers in the second study looked at what happened to the severity and duration of cold symptoms when people exercised while suffering with the common cold. Again, the researchers found that exercise did not effect the course of the illness. Like the first study, this one looked only at upper respiratory tract infections so it cannot be generalized to other illness.
One interesting side note about the way the second study collected data. In addition to having the subjects keep a detailed journal about how they felt, the scientists actually collected each subject’s used facial tissues and weighed them!
What the Experts Say
Among publications from medical experts, there is agreement that mild to moderate exercise is fine when symptoms are above the neck: nasal congestion, sneezing or minor throat irritation. Infectious disease specialist Catherine Liu, MD states that:
Exercising with a cold or the flu is probably unlikely to cause complications if you do not have other medical problems. However, if you have an underlying medical condition such as asthma, heart disease, or other medical illnesses, you should check with your doctor first, as exercise may worsen an underlying medical problem.
Edward R. Laskowski, M.D, a physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist from the Mayo Clinic, recommends holding off on exercise when symptoms are below the neck, such as chest congestion, hacking cough or upset stomach. He also advises against working out with a fever, fatigue, or widespread muscle aches as these may be signs of a more serious illness and the added stress from exercise may worsen the condition.
A common thread from most experts is “do what your body tells you”. If you’re feeling sapped of energy and can’t get yourself out of bed, then rest and wait until your strength comes back. Don’t let a minor cold be the only excuse though to get off track with your workout plans.
I usually don’t let a cold stop me from doing at least a light workout. Often times I’ll actually feel better immediately after doing some exercise. Like the studies suggested though, I haven’t noticed any effects (good or bad) from exercising with a cold. For me the common cold usually runs its course in seven or eight days regardless of whether or not I continue to workout. During that time I try to get plenty of rest and drink lots of liquids to hopefully give my immune system all the fuel it needs to fight off the bug.
Being in a health care profession and having worked in hospital settings I’ve learned to be diligent about keeping the cold to myself. This means frequent hand washing and covering my mouth when I cough or sneeze. For this reason I don’t always workout at the gym when I’m under the weather. If you are exercising in a public space, be mindful of others. Cold viruses can spread quickly in the gym. Avoid handling equipment unless you know your hands are clean and spray down equipment after use.