Down With A Sickness: Should You Still Workout?

It’s that time of year when everyone is sick. Whether it’s some variation of the flu, a cold, sinus infection or even allergies…when is it time to throw in the towel?

One of the most frequently asked questions around this time is, “Should I workout when I am sick?”

sickgym4First off, if you workout in public, don’t ever bring your germs to the gym and risk infecting other people. That is completely disrespectful and selfish.

Even if you don’t have a fever, coughing and sneezing all over the equipment is going to give you some evil stares. Best to workout at home or the outdoors until you’re back to being cootie-free.

A General Guide for Working Out and Illness:

1. Mild to moderate physical activity is usually okay if your symptoms are “above the neck” and you have no fever. These signs and symptoms include those you may have with a common cold, such as a runny nose, nasal congestion, sneezing or minor sore throat. Consider reducing the intensity and length of your workout.

2. Don’t exercise if your signs and symptoms are “below the neck,” such as chest congestion, hacking cough or upset stomach.

3. Don’t exercise if you have a fever, fatigue or widespread muscle aches.

Do the Neck Check

sickgym2Thomas Weidner, head of athletic training at Ball State University, claims you should perform what’s called a neck check. This goes hand-in-hand with #1 (symptoms above the neck). Weidner drew his conclusion from two different controversial studies in which his subjects were actually infected with the common cold. Evaluating his subjects in a controlled environment, he determined their symptoms were no worse (or better) for exercising while being ill. In fact, the group that exercised versus the one that didn’t, reported feeling slightly better after exercising.

Why Am I Sick to Begin With?

When we’re sick, it means our body is off balance. While we simplify being sick to the bad luck of “catching” a cold, there is much more to the story. The problem lies in our reactive response to treating the symptoms, not the causes.

Many experts agree that the ultimate cause of sickness is stress. Most of you know about the hormone cortisol. Did you know that cortisol turns off the production of cytokines which are the molecules that encourage an aggressive immune response? Stress breaks down your immune system – plain and simple.

Stomach Bug?

sickgym3Unless sprinting to the bathroom is counted as your workout, you’ll need to hold off until you feel better. Diarrhea and vomiting can result in severe fluid loss and dehydration. Breaking a sweat can further fluid loss. What’s more, these viruses are highly contagious and can live on hard surfaces until your gym buddies pick them up.

Fever or the Flu?

Take medicine and stay in bed, please. Working out with a fever can make your sickness get even worse. Similar to the stomach bug, a fever can cause workout-wrecking dehydration.

Even more concerning, high temps (101 degrees +) have been linked to heart damage. Exercising through a fever can raise your risk of myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle that may result in heart dysfunction, failure or sudden death. It is recommended to rest until the fever has been gone a full 24 hours without the help of any fever-reducing medications like ibuprofen. Your body is trying sickgym5to fight off a virus, so making your body split its energy and resources between the infection and exercise will keep you sick longer.

Sick Tips

  • Take the downtime of sickness as a time to be introspective and evaluate your body and especially the stress level in your life. Where are there opportunities to make changes?
  • If you absolutely must exercise, you absolutely must do low-intensity. The last thing your body needs is intense exercise that may further lower your immunity and cause your body additional stress.


Let your body be your guide. If you have a cold and feel miserable, take a break. Scaling back or taking a few days off from exercise when you’re sick shouldn’t affect your performance. Just resume your normal workout routine gradually as you begin to feel better.

If you push yourself when you’re sick, you could risk your illness going from mild to severe…and that will definitely keep you out of the gym!

Tristan "Lucky"

Written by: Tristan “Lucky”