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You Have a Cold. Should You Exercise?

February 07, 2024

Regular exercise is one of the most important things you can do to stay healthy and strengthen your immune system, so you can ward off most viral and bacterial infections.

That doesn’t mean you won’t get sick, and when you do, you may wonder whether it’s better to rest or to keep working out. The answer: It depends.

The average adult has from two to three colds a year, mostly between September and May, and it typically takes seven to 10 days to recover. More than 200 viruses can cause cold symptoms — runny nose, nasal congestion, sneezing or minor sore throat, for example. Most colds (about 40 percent) are caused by rhinoviruses and produce an illness that is mild if you are otherwise healthy.

Some people distinguish between a “head cold” and a “chest cold,” but healthcare providers say the latter is actually a secondary infection known as acute bronchitis. Symptoms include chest congestion and a persistent, hacking cough that produces mucus. These symptoms could be accompanied by fatigue, sore throat, headache and body aches.

Here are six scenarios to consider as you make your workout decision:

  • My symptoms are mild. Mild cold symptoms include sneezing, a stuffy or runny nose, sore throat, coughing and watery eyes. At this point, if you feel like it, moderate exercise will not make symptoms worse, but you may want to consider a walk instead of a run.
  • My symptoms are more severe. When a respiratory infection moves from the head into the chest, it’s likely you won’t feel like working out. In this case, listen to your body and take it easy. This will give your immune system the chance to fight off the infection without further stress.
  • My exercise routine is rigorous. If you’re a serious athlete or your occupation requires vigorous spurts of physical activity, it may be best to take it easy while fighting an infection. That may mean an easier workout if your symptoms are mild and no workout at all during more acute symptoms. Additionally, recent research has found evidence of a reduced immune response after intense activity, possibly making you more susceptible to infection.
  • I’m in great physical shape. Fitness level is another consideration when deciding whether to knock off or double down on exercise during a cold. The better shape you are in physically, the more quickly you should recover, even if your symptoms are in your chest. Take it easy for now. You should be able to resume your workouts in a few days.
  • I’m new to my exercise routine. If you are out of shape and metabolically unhealthy, you’ll need to bench yourself longer — two to three weeks, give or take — to fully recover before you resume your workouts. It may be frustrating, but cut your body some slack before you add additional stress. 
  • My exercise routine involves indoor classes. The viruses that cause colds are highly contagious, spread through microdroplets carried on the air after you cough, sneeze or even exhale vigorously. You are infectious from a few days before symptoms appear until all symptoms are gone. That means to protect others from getting sick, you should never attend an indoor exercise class while exhibiting symptoms

For most people, the combination of mild symptoms plus moderate exercise will not alter the severity or duration of the illness, and you may actually feel better after a light workout that clears congestion and boosts your energy. However, if you have more severe symptoms plus a rigorous exercise routine, you should hit the couch instead of the gym to give your body the rest it needs for your taxed immune system to do its job clearing the infection.

When deciding whether to work out, consider the neck test: Symptoms at or above the neck are a green light for a moderate workout if you feel like it. Symptoms below the neck signal time for rest and healing.

No matter your decision, remember to stay nourished and hydrated all the time but especially while healing from an infection. And listen to your body: It will tell you when the time is right to hit the trail, track, bike or treadmill again.

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