Exercise and Illness

Know when to exercise and when to rest.

By Laurie Wertich

You wake up with a sore throat and the sniffles; is it an excuse to roll over and catch an extra hour of sleep, or should you lace up your shoes and go for a jog? That depends. Learning to tune in to your symptoms will help you discern whether exercise is going to help or hurt.

Perform the Neck Check

The “neck check” is a general rule of thumb regarding exercise and illness: if your symptoms are above the neck, it’s generally considered safe to exercise; if your symptoms are below the neck, however, it’s best to rest.

  • Above the neck: Symptoms that are above the neck include runny nose, nasal congestion, sore throat, and sneezing.
  • Below the neck: Symptoms that are below the neck include chest congestion, hacking cough, body aches, chills, diarrhea, and upset stomach.

Assess the Fever Factor

Regardless of what you uncovered during the neck check, a fever trumps all. If you have a fever, refrain from exercising until your temperature returns to normal. A fever is a sign that your body is fighting an infection. You want to provide your body with the rest it needs to do this important work.

Do not exercise if you are experiencing fever, fatigue, or overall body aches.

How to Exercise During Illness

If you passed the neck check and do not have a fever, you may choose to exercise. Use your judgment and listen to your body. Follow these rules:

  • Reduce intensity. Studies have shown that exercising at a low-to-moderate intensity level will not compromise the immune system or exacerbate the symptoms of a cold. High-intensity exercise, however, can have a negative impact on the immune system. Say yes to an easy walk or jog, but say no to weightlifting and high-intensity aerobic exercise.
  • Reduce duration. Your body is using its reserves to fight illness. If you must exercise, make it brief. This is not a time to build fitness; it’s a time to move your body gently to relieve congestion and maintain the fitness foundation you’ve already built.
  • Get more sleep. Allow more rest time than you normally would. Exercise plus illness is a double whammy for your body, so give it time to recover by getting extra sleep.
  • Drink water. Hydration is always important, but it’s even more critical when you’re ill. Drink more water than you normally would.

Get Well, Stay Well

If you have a daily exercise habit, it’s inevitable that at some point you’ll encounter the exercise/illness conundrum. Sometimes exercise can relieve nasal congestion and provide an energy boost; other times it leads only to a downward spiral. You are the best judge of what your body needs. Use exercise wisely to get well and stay well.