Should I Workout when I Have a Cold?

We tend to talk a lot about motivation in fitness—tricks and inspiration to get us out for that run or to the gym. But with all this encouragement to exercise, we also need to remember that some days we need a break. Illness, even a touch of a cold, can be one of these occasions. The more workout-averse among us might invite the tiniest sniffle as an excuse to hit the couch, but enthusiasts may need some ground rules for when it’s time to take it easy.

Though “rest” is often among the first recommendations to help you recover from a cold, you may find that if your cold is mild, a little exercise won’t make you feel worse. In fact, fresh air and movement might help you feel better and may even boost immune function. The trick is to know when it’s probably okay to be active without making your cold worse and when you’re better off taking a break.

Many family physicians recommend the “above-the-neck” rule when deciding if you should exercise with a cold. This means that if your symptoms are confined to your head, a little activity might be okay. In other words, if you’re sneezing, have a runny nose, nasal congestion, or even a minor sore throat, you might be able to stay active. If, on the hand, you have a bad cough, very sore throat, chest congestion, or stomachache, you’re better off skipping your workout until you’re healthy. And definitely give yourself a break if you have a fever, fatigue, or widespread muscle aches.

If your symptoms appear to be only above the neck and you don’t think exercise will make them worse, you may still want to scale back your workout until you’re 100 percent healthy. For example, maybe it’s a good day for a brisk walk instead of a run, or a shorter workout than usual. And listen to your body—if you head out thinking you’re okay, but soon feel weak, very short of breath, and your cold symptoms get worse, it’s a good idea to quit early.

If you’re still not sure whether it’s okay to exercise with your cold symptoms, it might be a good time to take the better-safe-than-sorry approach and save your workout for a healthy day. You can also consult your doctor about when you should and shouldn’t exercise during a cold.

Whether you choose to workout or not during a cold, you’ll benefit from common-sense care tips. Try to get extra rest and drink plenty of fluids (particularly if you do exercise). Over-the-counter pain relievers—such as acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or naproxen—can help relieve pain or fever, and you may find that using a humidifier helps relieve a scratchy throat.