Should You Exercise When Sick? The Rules Every Gym Goer Must Know

Should you exercise when you’re sick or is it going to set you back? The answer depends on what you have – and where your symptoms are.

small dog with a bandage round his bed lying tucked up in bed

I was supposed to be telling you all about an exciting new set of DVDs I’ve been sent in the post today. Instead, my only exercise has been racking up my steps walking too and from the bathroom.

Yes, I’ve been struck down by a lurgy (not surprising as when The Boyfriend’s mum asked me what suspect foods – ie shellfish, soft cheese, undercooked meat, eggs, salad, etc- I might have eaten in the last day or so I had to say all of them.

Except Chicken – I hadn’t had any chicken!

This has meant no exercise for me. To be honest, it’s taken me until 5pm to be able to sit upright so there was no way there was going to be any bouncing.

Which brought me nicely to some useful advice – when should you actually exercise when you’re sick and when should you take a rest day. It’s something I’ve written about a few times so here are the rules I’ve learned over the years. Although do note, I am not a doctor. These tips have come from past interviews with trainers and medical experts but if you’re not sure, always ask your doctor for advice. Especially if you have any other health conditions like heart disease.

Please note – as I add this little note in 2021, none of the below applies if you have any of the symptoms of you know what. If you have even the slightest symptom of that, then follow the rules of wherever it is that you live about isolating and getting tested – they all vary around the world so I’m not even going to attempt to be prescriptive. No-one needs anyone going to the gym, yoga class or even out for a run if they think they have the virus. 

The Rules of Exercising When Sick.

  • Don’t do it if you can’t move more than 5 feet from the bathroom – for obvious reasons.
  • Otherwise, fitness folk say it’s fine to exercise moderately if you have above the neck symptoms – like sniffles, headaches, foggy brain etc – but not if you have below the neck ones like a cough, upset stomach, wheezing, aches and pains or fever.
  • Ignore this if you are asthmatic, only do light workouts like walking when you have any kind of cold – otherwise, if you’re like me at least, it will go to your chest and you’ll be sick for a week longer than you are sneezing for. Oh, if you are asthmatic, there’s some more advice about exercise with asthma for you here. 
  • Do not work out super hard or for more than 60 minutes. Exercise boosts immunity, but if you get past 90 minutes it actually depresses it. Keep workouts moderate.
  • Be careful if you’ve taken painkillers with ibuprofen in. Ibuprofen taken before hard exercise (ie fast running or cycling) causes temporary damage to the stomach lining which may limit nutrient absorption or increase risk of food poisoning for the next few hours – take it easy if you’re using it.
  • Some other drugs also conflict with exercise. One to be particularly careful of is the antibiotic Ciprofloxacin (given for problems like urinary tract infections or food poisoning) may weaken tendons which could be damaged if you’re doing high impact work or lifting heavy weights. Speak to your doctor if you’re on this about what you should and shouldn’t do. If you’re on a new drug, it’s always good to check with the pharmacist about any exercise interactions.
  • Should you exercise with a hangover? Well while it’s true that you can’t sweat out a hangover, I’ve worked out with a mild hangover, more than once, and it usually makes me feel better but remember, you are already dehydrated and so you need to make sure you keep your fluids up. I also find my muscles are more prone to cramp if I’m dehydrated which always makes Pilates fun!!
  • If you’re still potentially a bit drunk, or really, really tired, it’s probably best to skip it. Not only will you feel even more rubbish and have a higher risk of dehydration issues, your chance of tripping or doing something with incorrect form is much higher which means you risk of injury is too.  
  • If you’re tired or fatigued, but not actually ill – ask yourself. Have I overdone it this week? If the answer is no, hit the road for 10 minutes. If you’re still feeling shattered at that point, turn round and walk back. Your body needs rest more than movement today – if you feel great though, and nine times out of 10 it will. If you’ve been exercising madly, or working like a demon, sometimes you need a rest day – the big sign that you’re doing too much and need to take a break is if you don’t feel better after your workout.
  • And if you’re not ill but instead are feeling some pain skip your workout if your pain is sharp or stabbing rather than achy or if it’s there even when you’re not moving a muscle. These are both signs that you need to rest that area rather than indicating that you might have just overdone it a bit.

What About If You’re Injured?

Generally, you should not work out hard with an acute injury – but, have a look at this post which explains what you can do to help yourself recover faster.

Main image: © Javier Brosch.

Who is The Wellness Nerd?

My name is Helen Foster and I’m a health journalist and wellness author. Publications I’ve written for include Women’s Health, Reader’s Digest, Body and Soul, Good Health at the Daily Mail and more. I have also written 16 books on health and nutrition.

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