How sick is too sick to hit the gym?

Should you exercise when feeling ill? We asked a doctor whether working out when poorly is ever a good idea.

As if we haven’t had enough of viruses, in comes the winter with its nasty colds and flu. After not mixing with other people for a year and a half, this year’s common cold is so awful that it’s been dubbed the ‘super cold’.

Sore throats, blocked noses and foggy heads are more than just annoying – they interrupt your entire routine, meaning you might not be able to work or socialise. As for exercise? It’s probably not on your mind. However, given that a moderate amount of exercise can actually boost your immune system and in turn prevent you from getting sick, should you really be skipping exercise?

Strong Women spoke to Dr Claudia Pastides, a GP for digital health service Babylon, to clear up the minefield about when and how to exercise if you’ve been struck down by the cold. 

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Should you work out with a cold?

“There’s nothing to say that you shouldn’t exercise with a run-of-the-mill head cold,” says Dr Pastides, which might not be the answer you were looking for if you’re trying to convince yourself you’re too sniffly for a session. “Of course if you’re feeling incredibly unwell you might not want to exercise, but medically there’s no reason why you shouldn’t.”

It goes without saying that this information pertains to the common cold – not Covid. Given that many of the symptoms overlap, always make sure you do a test for coronavirus and isolate if you are unwell. That also means don’t head to the gym. Even if you don’t have the virus, it’s best not to risk it.

Can you sweat out a cold?

There’s a common thought that going hell for leather on a cardio machine can get rid of your symptoms. It stems from the fact that during a cold your body temperature will rise as a warmer body will fight infections more efficiently. But attempting to get yourself hot to ‘sweat out the cold’ doesn’t work quite in the same way. 

“Your body needs to raise its temperature by itself in order to fight the infection – you can’t create that environment for your body by going for a run or to the gym,” says Dr Pastides. 

This is how to give your immune system a boost when it’s running low

How sick is too sick to exercise?

If working out through a mild head cold is ok, when does that get bad enough to press pause on your routine? “It sounds like common sense, but if you’re feeling like you can’t get out of bed then I really don’t think you need to push yourself to exercise,” says Dr Pastides. When that cold becomes a flu, exercise is definitely a no-go. Dr Pastides prescribes rest if you feel faint, are struggling to breathe and/or have aching muscles (not including post-gym DOMS). “Our bodies are very clever and tell us when we need to let ourselves recover.”

What exercise should be avoided with a cold?

Dr Pastides recommends avoiding anything too vigorous if you’re not 100%, and especially anything that will get you too out of breathe if you are already struggling to breathe through your nose. “Just be sensible and listen to your body,” she says. “Sometimes it’s best to take the time to recover and take your exercise through daily walks.”

In the end, exercising won’t make the cold go away any faster, so it’s better to rest and let your body concentrate on fighting the infection.

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