So you're sick. How do you know if you should keep working out or crawl into a cave and sleep?
The answer isn’t so black and white.
If you want a speedy recovery, my advice is to rest. You can take 2-3 days off. Get ample rest. You'll survive taking a break from the gym.
I've learned the hard way of wanting to sweat it out, which only leads to a longer lasting cold.
For a speedy recovery, take a break. You have the rest of your life to workout.
Use the “above the neck” rule when thinking about continuing to working out while sick. If you are only experiencing symptoms that are above your neck, such as a stuffy nose, sneezing or an earache, you’re probably ok to engage in exercise. On the other hand, if you are experiencing symptoms below your neck, like nausea, body aches, fever, diarrhea, coughing up phlegm or chest congestion, you may want to skip your workout until you feel better.
Think about all the people you could potentially get sick.
When It's Safe to Exercise
Working out with the following symptoms is most likely safe, but always check with your doctor if you are unsure.
A mild cold is a viral infection of the nose and throat. If you have the energy to workout, go ahead. Just be aware that you might be contagious. Wash your hands frequently.
An earache is a sharp, dull or burning pain in one or both ears. Working out with an earache is safe, as long as your sense of balance is not affected and an infection has been ruled out. Try to avoid exercises that put pressure on the sinus region.
Having a stuffy nose can be frustrating and uncomfortable. If you are only experiencing some nasal congestion, go ahead and workout. If it’s associated with a fever or other symptoms like a cough or chest congestion, rest. Wipe down your equipment after you’ve used it to avoid spreading your snotty germs. Going for a brisk walk or bike ride are great ways to stay active when you aren't feeling up to your usual routine.
Mild Sore Throat
A sore throat is usually caused by a viral infection like the common cold or flu. If you have a fever, cough or difficulty swallowing you should put exercise on hold until a doctor tells you it’s ok. However, if you are experiencing a mild sore throat caused by something like a common cold or allergies, working out is likely safe. Reduce your duration or intensity when you don't feel like you have your usual stamina. And drink lots of water! Flush it out.
When Exercise Is Not Recommended
While exercising is generally harmless when you have a mild cold or earache, working out when you are experiencing any of the following symptoms is not recommended.
When you have a fever, your body temperature rises above its normal range, which hovers around 98.6°F (37°C). Working out with a fever increases the risk of dehydration and can make a fever worse. It also decreases muscle strength and endurance, impairs coordination and increases the risk on injury. Best you skip the gym.
Phlegm or Frequent Cough
Frequent episodes of coughing can be a symptom of a cold, flu or even pneumonia. A cough associated with a tickle in the throat isn't a reason to skip the gym, but a persistent cough with phlegm is. It might make it difficult to take a deep breath, particularly when your heart rate rises during exercise. This makes you more likely to become short of breath and fatigued. Cough with phlegm may be a sign of infection and requires rest.
Illnesses that affect the digestive system, such as the stomach flu, can cause serious symptoms that make working out off-limits. Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, fever, stomach cramping and decreased appetite are all common symptoms associated with stomach bugs. If you are feeling restless during a stomach illness, light stretching or yoga at home are the safest options.
The flu causes symptoms like fever, chills, sore throat, body aches, fatigue, headache, cough and congestion. Majority of people recover from the flu in less than two weeks, choosing to engage in intense workouts while sick may prolong the flu and delay your recovery. Engaging in higher-intensity activity like running or a spin class temporarily suppresses the body’s immune response. The flu is also highly contagious.
The Bottom Line
Let your body completely recover from an illness before returning to your exercise routine. Don't stress too much about it. Stressing about taking a few days off from the gym because you might lose muscle and strength is not going to happen. Muscle loss begins after about 3-4 weeks without training. Strength begins to decline around the 10 day mark. Take your time getting back into your routine. Pay attention to how you're feeling. Try not to jump right back into a hard core routine. To stay healthy and safe when you’re sick, it is always best to listen to your body and follow your doctor’s advice.