Should I Exercise When I’m Sick?

It’s the season of fitness-related new year’s resolutions, but let’s face it, it’s also sniffle-central! This week Vancouver is dipping below -10 C (!!) and I’ve had several people in the office ask me if it’s OK to exercise while they’re feeling sick.

There’s a pretty common rule of thumb out there, which says that it’s ok to exercise if your illness is above the neck. Stuffy nose, sore throat, etc., are ok, but if it’s below the neck (cough, joint pains, tummy troubles) then you should probably hold off. There actually is some evidence for the so-called “neck check”, although it’s not very high quality and somewhat dated. I tend to be a little more lenient when it comes to coughing- sometimes I find being out in fresh air can really loosen it up.

I think that a really practical approach for adult athletes is to listen to their bodies and try a much lower intensity activity than planned- for example if you would normally go for a 30 minute run in the morning but you wake up feeling sick, it would be reasonable to give it a try at a run-walk for 10-15 mins and then re-evaluate (you can always keep going based on how you’re feeling).

I usually also tell patients that in my opinion, a fever is a pretty firm indicator that it’s not a good day to work out. When you have a fever your basal metabolism increases, probably because of the energy required to mount the inflammatory response (and fight the infection!). People also tend to feel less hungry and thirsty when they are febrile, so there is a significantly higher risk of dehydration.

Overall, then, I usually tell people that they can try low-intensity exercise if they’re feeling sick, mostly above the neck, and not if they have a fever. Of course, if you’re not sure it’s totally fine to hold off (and you should take this as general information, not individualized medical advice!).

Personally I like to go for a short run/walk if I have a cold- especially a stuffy nose! It usually makes me feel more human. What about you?

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