Exercise or Rest When a Virus Strikes?

exercise or rest with a virusTis the season of coughing, sneezing, and runny noses – not just roasted chestnuts over an open fire and sleigh rides in the snow. The scourge of cold and flu season is here. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and prevention (CDC) estimates that there are over 425 million cases of the cold and flu every year. In an active community such as ours, the question often comes up as to whether you should exercise or rest while sick. Can you “burn it out” with a good run, or do you just need some serious downtime? The answer is…it depends.

Above/Below the Neck Rule

In short, the general rule of thumb is that if the symptoms are “above the neck” such as a sore throat, cough, runny nose, or congestion then it is okay to continue to exercise. Mild to moderate exercise is best, and as your symptoms begin to resolve, you can gradually increase the intensity of your workouts. On the other hand, if you are experiencing symptoms like muscle/joint pain, fever, fatigue, diarrhea, vomiting, and swollen lymph nodes, it is best to avoid exercise all together. In this case, depending on the length and severity of the illness,  you should take 2-4 weeks before resuming exercise that is more intensive.

Don’t Share

Risk of spreading illness is another consideration to take into account when deciding to exercise or rest while sick. If you are contagious and you do choose to exercise, it is best to exercise individually and avoid close contact team sports. As always, practice good hygiene! Wash your hands, wipe off your equipment with disinfectant, don’t share a water bottle, and cover your mouth when you cough and sneeze.

Don’t Stress…or maybe just a little

Exercise is a stressor on the body, but stress can be both good and bad. Research has shown that moderate levels of exercise can help protect the body against illness, while too much intense exercise or not enough exercise can make you more susceptible to getting sick. Therefore, you should find ways to manage your stress and avoid overtaxing your body. If you participate in high-intensity exercise, make sure that you recover fully between workouts. If your symptoms persist or you have a high fever, you should consider seeing your doctor. Once you do recover, ease back into exercising slowly. This process should last about as long as your illness did. For example, if you were sick for three days, you should spend about three days easing back into activity.

Exercise or Rest

Of course, it is best to do what you can to avoid getting sick in the first place. Get your flu shot on a yearly basis, practice good hygiene, eat a well-balanced meal, stay hydrated, and get plenty of sleep.  If you do catch a cold, the best treatment is rest and drinking plenty of fluids. Over the counter medications can help relieve the severity of the symptoms but do not help you recover faster.  Whether or not you decide to exercise or rest when sick should be the result of listening to your body, not just trying to force your way to health.

Written by: Stuart Schmidt, MS, ATC, CSCS athletic trainer supervisor for The Center Foundation in Bend, OR. Learn more about Stuart HERE.

The Center Foundation places dedicated athletic trainers in local high schools to provide sports medicine services to young athletes at no charge to the students or their families. Learn more about our work HERE.



American College of Sports Medicine Current Comment: Exercise and the Common Cold. Accessed Online 11/15/2018. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17095937

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2018). Influenza (flu) including seasonal, avian, swine, pandemic, and other.. [online] Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/flu/index.htm [Accessed 31 Oct. 2018].

Precision Nutrition. (2018). Exercise when sick: Should you sweat it out? Or rest and recover? | Precision Nutrition. [online] Available at: https://www.precisionnutrition.com/working-out-when-sick [Accessed 31 Oct. 2018].