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Should you exercise when you’re sick?

a photo of a woman on the sofa with a headcold
(Image credit: Westend61)

January is often a time for new workout goals, but as the temperature drops and cold and flu viruses become more common, knowing whether or not to work out when you’re sick is important. To save you from googling, we asked Dr. Shubhangi Karmakar, an academic and a training hospital doctor currently working in an ICU ward, for their advice. 

As with all medical advice, you should check with your own doctor if you’re concerned about your health before returning to exercise, as Dr Karmakar cannot offer individual advice based on your symptoms. 

Should you exercise when you’re sick? 

According to Dr Karmakar, "Exercise might be the last thing you feel up to when you have a cold, and rest is an important part of supportive therapy for viral infections. If you're braving a return to fitness, what you might feel able to do very much depends on the severity of symptoms and how recently you have been experiencing them, as well as your general health, and the kind of exercise you're planning.

“Being active should always, but particularly when recovering from illness, be a very personal thing —  not dictated by 10,000-step counters or numbers on a chart. If you have mild symptoms of what people might call a "head cold" — runny nose, mild sore throat, a little muscle fatigue — even 15 minutes of gentle stretching or a walk in the fresh air could help you feel better.

“That said, I wouldn't be planning my next triathlon or weightlifting personal best while recovering from a cold or flu, but getting back into your Pilates schedule, gentle walks around your apartment block, a short cycle, or run in a park could all be good goals to set yourself as you recover. Wrap up well for the fresh outdoors, and you might see benefits such as improved sleep, a better appetite, and best of all, less of a snotty nose!

“If, however, you're already experiencing significantly labored breathing at rest, a fast heartbeat, feeling shivery or running a fever, or feeling pain in your joints, these can all be signs your immune system is working overtime to cope with the demands of the illness. In this case, it might be a better idea to prioritize rest and physical recovery. Vigorous exercise itself puts our bodies under metabolic stress — not to mention the risk of injuries from fatigue, or from a lack of coordination when we're preoccupied with feeling unwell.

“The bottom line is if you've been laid low by a cold, don't be afraid to start incorporating some physical activity into your days as you feel recovered. But start gently, go slowly, and if you're a creature of habit, don't be afraid to take the overall intensity down a few notches."

Looking for gentle exercise ideas? Take a look at the 8 best Pilates exercises that target your core, or this 30-minute Pilates class with over 4 million views.

a photo of a positive lateral flow test

(Image credit: Massimiliano Finzi)

What about exercising with Covid-19? 

"As the WHO says, ‘Physical activity and relaxation techniques can be valuable tools to help you remain calm and continue to protect your health’ during a time of self quarantining with Covid," explains Dr Karmakar. "Whether you're in the hospital or at home, physical deconditioning with being sedentary for long periods of time can make recovery after the viral infection feel sluggish and like it's taking forever. If you are able to isolate yourself at home and you don't have excessive difficulty breathing at rest or with minimal activity, or ongoing fevers and pains, keeping mobile and active as you can tolerate can be really important. 

"If you're trying to be active while sick, with Covid or anything else, there are a few priorities to consider to tailor your exercise to your current physical health. Make sure you're nourishing your body well enough for activity, plan mostly for maintenance of your health and stamina and don't be disheartened if you only manage a small fraction of your usual activity every day — after all, your body is already working overtime producing an immune response and fighting an illness. Finally, make sure you actively plan safeguards ahead of starting an activity, to avoid exercise making your health worse." 

Jane McGuire
Jane McGuire

Jane McGuire is Tom's Guide's Fitness editor, which means she looks after everything fitness related - from running gear to yoga mats. An avid runner, Jane has tested and reviewed fitness products for the past four years, so knows what to look for when finding a good running watch or a pair of shorts with pockets big enough for your smartphone. When she's not pounding the pavements, you'll find Jane striding round the Surrey Hills, taking far too many photos of her puppy.