Home  >  Carol LeBeau  >  Carol's Health Journal | 02. December 2012 - Live

How to Know if You're Too Sick to Exercise

02. December 2012

The moment I woke up, I knew something was wrong.  The left side of my throat was scratchy and sore.  Mildly dizzy and a touch achy, I felt like going back to sleep.  In retrospect, that may have been a good idea.

Looking forward to a good workout with my Saturday morning swim group at La Jolla Cove, I discounted my symptoms and told myself I wasn’t going to let a little head cold get in the way of my plans.  Why, a chilly dip in the ocean might just be what I needed to ward off my symptoms.  

Bad decision. The next two weeks I was down for the count – sore throat, runny nose, body aches and fatigue. Hard to say for sure, but that brisk swim may have just turned a little head cold into the virus from hell!

The onset of the flu season brings some tricky exercise questions: Is it OK to hit the gym with a stuffy nose? Or take your Pilates class while nursing a fever?

Whether to exercise while sick depends on your symptoms.  Doctors say in most cases, exercise is fine if you have simple cold symptoms, including a runny nose, sinus headache or scratchy throat.

But you should probably avoid exercise with flu-like symptoms including a heavy cough, body aches, chills or diarrhea.  Even with a cold, it may be difficult to work out with the same intensity. I’ve found I need to lower my exercise expectations when I’m fighting a bug.  (Some easy laps in a heated pool may have been a healthier alternative to my planned open water workout.)

“When you’re feeling ill,” says Dr. Keith Veselik, medical director of primary care at Loyola University, “first take your temperature.  If you have a fever, your heart is already pumping harder and your metabolism is revved, so working out would make you feel worse and raise your body temperature.”  He adds, “If your temperature is above 100.5 degrees, take time away from the gym.”

My doctor suggests doing a “neck check” for a quick answer on whether to work out.  Symptoms originating below the neck mean you should take a few days off.  Those above the neck mean you shouldn’t have to break your routine.

As a general rule, avoid group exercise classes to keep from spreading germs. Obviously, those with chronic conditions including heart disease or diabetes should check with their doctor before exercising.

Fearing I’ll lose my fitness level, I become impatient getting over the flu and come back too quickly.  That mistake has cost me more time without exercise due to relapse.  Best advice I’ve ever received?  Listen to your body.  If you find yourself literally “willing” yourself through your workout, take some time off.  (There’s nothing like “fresh” arms after a little break from swimming!)  It’s ok to rest and let your body heal itself.

And for those who tend to give up a little too quickly, it is possible to be too cautious when feeling sick.  Know when to ease up, but don’t stop exercising at the first sign of illness because exercise is a natural immunity boost says Dr. Veselik. 

Just give it a try and see how you feel.  Trust what that still, small voice is trying to tell you. Because staying healthy can sometimes be more art than science.


Contact Carol by emailing her at Carol@palomarhealth.org.