Exercising While Sick—Is It a Good Idea?

Should I exercise when I'm sick?

January 21, 2020 

There are some things you can count on every year: taxes, a few blistering hot weeks in the summer, the changing of leaves in the fall, and me getting a sinus infection during the winter. In a world that is constantly changing, there is something to be said for consistency! However, this year, that winter cold is colliding with my New Year’s resolution of daily exercise. You might think I could use that as a convenient excuse to take a few days off, but I really want to stick with the resolution So, the question is; should I keep exercising or take a few days off?

Many experts use the “above the neck rule” as a good way to decide. It says if you are only experiencing symptoms that are above your neck, like a stuffy nose or sneezing, or even a mild sore throat from coughing, you’re probably okay to exercise. On the other hand, if you are experiencing symptoms below the neck, such as nausea, body aches, chest congestion, productive cough where you are coughing up phlegm, bronchial tightness, diarrhea or fever, you should skip the workout until you feel better.

By the way, you may wonder why a fever is listed in the “below the neck” area. That’s because a fever is usually associated with body aches and other symptoms. Working out while you are feverish increases the risk of dehydration and can also make a fever worse. Fevers also can decrease muscle strength which increases the risk of injury. Bottom line: don’t exercise with a fever!

One other way to think about exercising while sick is “do what you can do and if you can’t do it, don’t.” Sometimes even with just a stuffy nose, you don’t feel well enough to push through a workout. Those are times when you risk an injury because you aren’t fully concentrating on the workout.

If you do decide to tough it and exercise with “above the neck” symptoms, reducing the length and intensity of your workout isn’t a bad idea. It’s gives your body a chance to rest. It’s also a good idea to increase hydration even more than usual. Good luck and I hope you feel better.

—Frank Graff 

 Frank Graff is a producer/reporter with UNC-TV, focusing on Sci NC, a broadcast and online science series.