When it comes to preventing colds, the science is clear: exercise is key. Regular, moderate exercise will help improve your overall fitness, boost your immune system and help fight off infection. But what’s the deal with exercising when you actually have a cold? Will it help or hinder your symptoms and recovery? Does it have no effect, or does it make you feel better or worse? Let’s find out.
What do the scientists say?
A scientific study divided a group of sick people into 2 groups, one was asked to exercise throughout their illness, while the other did no exercise at all. The study showed that moderate exercise with a mild cold has no effect on recovery time or symptoms, with participants who exercised throughout their illness recovering at the same pace as non-exercisers. Some of those who exercised even reported feeling better after a workout.
Medical professionals tend to agree that moderate exercise with a mild cold generally won’t cause any harm or make you feel worse, so if you feel up to it, go ahead. While it’s different for each individual, the general wisdom is that it’s okay to exercise if your symptoms are contained above the neck; for instance, if you have a runny nose, sneezing and a mild sore throat. If you have a fever, feel exhausted, have muscle aches or chest congestion, skip the gym and rest.
This is just a general rule of thumb, however. The best thing to do is listen carefully to your body and only exercise if you have the energy. Those with existing health issues such as asthma should also take extra care and speak to their doctor before exercising.
It’s okay to work out with:
- A runny nose
- Nasal congestion
- A sore throat
Don’t exercise if you have:
- A cough
- Shortness of breath
- Chest congestion
- Body aches
- A fever
Does the intensity of exercise matter?
If you do exercise, be careful not to work out too hard. Pushing yourself when you’re sick can make it more difficult for your body to fight off infection as the white blood cells in your body are already diminished. At the same time, your stress hormone cortisol may be high, interfering with the ability of certain immune cells to work correctly. This will lengthen the amount of recovery time needed.
If you do exercise, do moderate cardio such as comfortable jogging, cycling or swimming. Yoga or Pilates are also a good option. Avoid intense strength and HIIT workouts as these will strain already weakened muscles.
Pay attention to your body and stop if your chest feels more congested and you cough or wheeze.
Is there anything else to bear in mind?
- Be aware of the effect of any medication you’re taking. Some cold medicines can increase your heart rate; when combined with the increase in heart activity from exercise, this may cause your heart to pump too hard and cause trouble breathing.
- Take care not to spread your germs and infect others. Wash your hands thoroughly before your workout; be careful to cover your mouth with a tissue when you sneeze or cough (or cough into your shoulder) and wipe off any equipment you touch.
- Make sure you stay adequately hydrated. Hydration is key in helping your body recover – especially when you throw exercise into the mix.