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Exercising When Sick: What You Need To Know

We all know the feeling…

Your alarm goes off, but something just isn’t right.

You are supposed to get up, hit the gym, and then get on with the rest of your day – but it’s looking like there may be a slight change of plans.

And that is because you have a sore throat, your muscles are throbbing, and your head is pounding.

Yup, you’re sick. There’s no denying it.

And yes, it sucks – but what now?

Should you force yourself to get up, go to the gym, and try to work through it?

Hey, maybe an injection of exercise will kick you into gear and you’ll actually get better, faster, right?

Well, to give you some guidance the next time you face this inevitable dilemma, this article will go over everything that you need to know about exercising when you’re sick.

Let’s get right into it.

Should you exercise when you’re sick?

Well, that really depends on a variety of factors, so there unfortunately isn’t a cut and dry answer.

The best way to determine whether or not you should work out is based on your specific symptoms.

Let’s go through some of them, and how each one can impact your decision to work out.

You have a fever

This one is pretty black and white…

If you have a fever, you shouldn’t work out.

No, not even a light walk on the treadmill you gym junky!

When you have a fever, your body temperature is going to be higher than it usually is.

Normally, the average person’s body temperature runs at about 97 degrees; however, when you have a fever, it will be at least several degrees higher than that, and often over 100 degrees.

Basically, since your body temperature is already higher than normal, you don’t want to raise it any further by exercising.

That can just end up making you sicker, and needlessly prolonging your recovery. Plus, the quality of your workout will be crap, I guarantee it.

You have bronchial tightness

You know that tight feeling you get in your chest when you have a bad cold or the flu?

Well, if you are experiencing this uncomfortable bronchial tightness, you shouldn’t be working out.

Breathing is a big part of exercise – whether in relation to weight training, cardio, yoga, etc.

Your breathing needs to be controlled, and focused, which is almost impossible if your chest feels constricted and your airways are clogged.

Do yourself a favor and wait until the tightness subsides before getting back to the gym.

Your muscles are sore

This is generally the case if you come down with the flu, whereas you often won’t experience this with minor colds.

Either way, regardless of the specific cause, if you have obvious muscle soreness that isn’t gym-related (we’re not talking about post-workout soreness here), you should definitely hold off on the exercise.

Trust your body on this one and try not to exert it any more than you need to.

Let those aching muscles get some much-deserved rest!

You just feel really shitty

Look, even if you don’t have any of the specific symptoms mentioned above, if you just feel like complete shit, then you aren’t doing yourself any favors by dragging yourself to the gym.

And no, you aren’t going to turn into a fat, weak blob overnight – so if you really can’t imagine yourself actually having a decent workout, then you should definitely sit it out.

Is there anything else that you should consider?

In addition to these symptoms, here are some other factors that you might want to consider when making your decision.

Are you still contagious?

Obviously it’s always hard to tell for certain, but if you are still towards the beginning of your illness (like you just came down with something in the last 1-2 days), then it is likely that you are still contagious.

So if this sounds like you, then it really is a matter of how much you care about not being a dick.

Yes, it really is that simple.

Personally, if I suspect that I am still contagious, then I will take off from the gym.

Let’s be real here: at the gym you are in close contact with other people’s bodily secretions, and they yours, so if you are infecting the equipment with your germ-covered hands, or coughing all over the place, then there is a good likelihood that you’ll give someone an unwanted surprise.

However, if you favor your own workouts over the wellbeing of your fellow gym-goers, at least make an effort not to cough on things, make sure to wipe down machines after you use them, and wash your hands regularly.

And, if you’re feeling particularly conscientious, consider carrying around one of those alcohol-based hand sanitizers with you to use when needed.

Are you coughing everywhere?

For upper-respiratory illnesses, you often tend to get a sore throat first, followed by a stuffy/runny nose, and culminating in a cough, which can linger on for differing amounts of time.

So, even if you don’t have any of the symptoms we discussed – and are pretty confident that you are no longer contagious – you still may want to hold off before going back.

Yes, I know, it’s lame. You feel pretty much fine, but you just have this hacking chest cough that refuses to get in line.

Still, the reality is that if you try to work out you will probably be coughing even more.

Inevitably, this will cause other people at the gym to treat you like a leper that has somehow escaped quarantine.

If this sounds like you, then consider taking a cough suppressant before you hit the weights. I would recommend going with this one from Delsym.

How long should you stay out of the gym?

Again, this one really depends on your specific illness and the severity of your symptoms.

However, on average, the flu lasts around 4-5 days, and is generally gone after a week.

Colds, on the other hand, tend to be at their worst 4-5 days after you start to see symptoms, and can take anywhere from 10 days to 3 weeks to completely go away.

So, a good rule of thumb is to listen to your symptoms when determining if it’s time to go back.

If you still have some of the symptoms above, you should hold off; when they finally subside, you’re ready to begin exercising again.

And if you’re on the fence, I would always recommend erring on the side of caution.

There have been many times in my younger, more impetuous years where I would force myself to go back too early, and end up feeling more sick than I did before the workout (not to mention having a useless, terrible workout).

Is there anything else you can do to get better, faster?

Listen, I’m no doctor, but here a few things that I would suggest.

  • Drink lots of water: When you’re sick, it is important to keep yourself well-hydrated. There are many reasons for this, including helping to remove toxins more quickly, controlling fevers, and loosening bronchial secretions.
  • Rest up: Giving your body as much rest as possible will directly impact how fast you get better. This means plenty of sleep and just really taking it easy. Going to the gym for a light workout is not taking it easy, just so we’re clear.
  • Give your immune system some help: While there is a lot of debate about the effectiveness of immune-boosting supplements, you should consider taking extra vitamin C, vitamin A, and vitamins B6 and B12. You also may want to try Zinc Lozenges and Echinacea, which are both reported to reduce the duration and severity of colds.

But, as I already mentioned, I’m not a doctor, so none of what I said should be taken as medical advice.

And needless to say, if you’re really feeling pretty damn terrible, you should obviously visit your doctor to get their opinion.

In Summary

I hate getting sick, and I’m sure you do too – but it is unfortunately a fact of life.

But here’s the good news: you are not going to lose all that muscle and suddenly become fat by being out of the gym for a few days (or even weeks).

If you have been consistent with your exercise habits, then your brief illness-induced gym hiatus will not make a shred of difference.

Trust me, it’s all in your head.

So, next time you get a cold or flu – or if you’re suffering from one right now – don’t stress pointlessly about missing workouts.

Instead, relax, get some rest, drink a whole lot of water, and only go back when your body is feeling good and ready.

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