December 2, 2023

Working Out While Sick – Good Idea or Nah?

You may be able to exercise at a lower intensity than usual if you are feeling a bit under the weather.

athlete fitness women working out while sick

It’s the time of year when colds, the flu and a plethora of other illnesses hit us out of nowhere to just mess with our regularly scheduled day – which happens to include our daily workout. Because you are committed to staying on track with your health and wellness goals, you may be inclined to grab some tissues and push through your regular workout. However, if you are feeling a bit under the weather, you may want to give working out while sick a little extra thought.

ICYDK – Engaging in Regular Exercise Can Keep the Body Healthy

Getting regular physical activity been shown to decrease your risk of chronic diseases like heart disease and diabetes, help maintain a healthy weight, and even boost your immune system. In fact, during exercise the immune cells move from the lymph nodes and the spleen into the bloodstream and through the body to remain for up to three hours after exercise is completed. This provides extra time for the immune cells to identify unwanted intruders and keep you from getting sick.

More consistent physical activity leads to the increased circulation of immune cells to patrol the body for bacteria and viruses. Researchers have found that working out was associated with a lower risk of COVD-19 infection as well as a lower likelihood of severe COVID-19 infection. The results indicate that exercise can help protect health through several different mechanisms.

Is Working Out While Sick Safe?

There’s actually no right answer to whether it’s okay to move your body when feeling sick – actually, it depends on several factors including your symptoms, the workout you had planned, and where you intended to do it. Not mention, is it ethically right to work out in a public setting when you have the potential to spread your illness to unsuspecting gym goers – we can thank the pandemic for teaching us how viral illness spreads and how much harm it can do.

Whether you’re feeling the beginnings of a cold coming on or not, it’s always a good idea to listen to your body. There’s never a situation where you must work out, especially if you are not feeling it. If you’re playing with the idea of getting some physical activity when you have the sniffles or runny nose, feel head- or body-achy, or just plain low energy, it’s important to keep the following things in mind prior to moving your body.

First Step – Consider Your Symptoms and Where You Are Feeling Them

Start with a body scan and a quick symptom check. Many experts use the “neck rule” to determine whether working out while sick is safe. The “neck rule” essentially separates your body into two sections: above and below your neck.

“Above-the-neck” symptoms include:

  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Sinus congestion
  • Sneezing
  • Mild sore throat
  • Low-grade headache
  • Dry coughing

“Below-the-neck” symptoms include:

  • Chest congestion
  • Hacking cough
  • Upset stomach
  • Muscle aches

Second Step – Rule Out Covid-19 infection

If you are experiencing “above-the-neck” symptoms you should first rule out COVID-19 infection. Eliminating that possibility can help you decide on whether to sign up for you morning spin class or not.

From January 2022 through May 11, 2023, health insurance plans were required to cover the cost of at-home rapid tests for Covid-19. Since the COVID public health emergency ended May 11, 2023, at-home test coverage is options for private health plans.

PCR tests conducted in your physician’s office continues to be covered, but health insurance plans can improve regular cost-sharing (deductible, copay, coinsurance) just as they would for any lab test. You can reach out to your insurance company for more information.

ICYDK, every home in the U.S. is eligible to order four FDA -authorized free at-home Covid-19 tests beginning November 20, 2023. If you did not order 4 tests earlier in the fall, you can place two orders for a total of 8 tests.

If you test negative on the first rapid test, you should re-test 48 hours later to confirm the result, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. If you’ve tested negative twice for the SARS-CoV-2 virus, then it’s likely your symptoms are the result of an upper respiratory infection.

When Is It Safe to Exercise?

Whether you have the common cold, the flu, or COVID-19, it’s important to remember you might be contagious. Use the following as a guideline for best practices on when to its safe to get moving again, especially in public spaces.

The Common Cold

If you have above-the-neck symptoms and have tested negative for COVID, then it’s likely okay for you to get some moderate physical activity. In fact, several studies indicate that for adults, regular exercise may reduce the overall severity of acute respiratory tract infections and the number of days with symptoms.

However, it important to remember that the common cold can be even more infectious than the flu. Most people are contagious one to three days before first experiencing symptoms and can stay that way for up to two weeks. It’s probably best to wait at least 72 hours after your symptoms have resolve before returning to the gym.

The Flu or Worse

You’ll want to refrain from physical activity If you have a wet cough or a cough that brings up mucus which may signify a more serious illness. Wet coughing occurs most often with bacterial or viral infections in the lower respiratory tract, like pneumonia or bronchitis.

Body or muscle aches, fatigue, fever, a deeper cough, chest pain or tightness, or shortness of breath? These symptoms may indicate that you have the flu or other serious systemic sickness. If you have the flu, you were already contagious before you became symptomatic. You’ll be most contagious for the first three days or four days thereafter and you can spread the flu for up to a week after symptoms start. It’s probably best you put your workout on hold for at least a week.

If you’ve got all that plus a bad sore throat (and are COVID negative), you might be looking at mononucleosis. This requires a more extended break from intense exercise—sometimes as much as three to four weeks—to avoid a ruptured spleen.

COVID-19 Positive

Now, if you’ve unfortunately are COVID positive, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends you postpone exercise for at least five days after you test positive and do not have symptoms. If you test positive and are experiencing below-the-neck symptoms, it’s recommended you isolate for at least 11 days. Especially if you have a fever, it’s best to give your body a few days to rest and recover. A fever can affect your body’s ability to maintain your temperature and increase fluid loss. Exercising with a fever is likely to compound both issues. Its best to wait until you’ve had two negative tests in a row, 48 hours apart, before hitting the gym.

When You Do Go Back

If you exercise regularly, you’ll likely be anxious to return to the gym. However, it’s important to let your body completely recover from a bacterial or viral infection before you return to your routine. Think of the following when you are ready to work up a sweat again.

Increase Intensity Slowly

Once you’re feeling better and are ready to resume physical activity, remember to slowly return to your workout. You may lose some of your physical strength after an extended period away from your normal routine. Begin with a low intensity, shorter workout, and be sure to hydrate with water while exercising. This helps avoid fatigue since your body already uses a lot of energy to fight off an infection. Gradually increasing the intensity of your workouts helps avoid complications and injuries.

Check In With How You’re Feeling

You may still feel a bit weak after recovering from your illness, especially if recovering from the flu, pneumonia, or stomach illness. It’s important to listen to your body when deciding if you’re well enough for more intense activity. If you don’t feel like you have the strength for burpees, try jumping jacks or jogging in place instead.
Ask your instructor for modifications and don’t be afraid to sit out if necessary. Stop physical activity and focus on resting if exercising worsens your symptoms.

Practice Proper Gym Etiquette

When you return to the gym or your favorite group fitness class, it’s important to practice proper gym etiquette to reduce the risk you post to others. Cold and flu viruses spread through droplets and hand-to-hand contact. Wearing a mask, washing your hands, and sanitizing equipment after use will help keep the spread of germs to a minimal. To best protect yourself and others, its best to stay home until you are no longer contagious.

The Takeaway

Remember, you are not obligated to stick to your workout routine when you feel crummy. As busy as our lives are right now, you likely don’t need an excuse to just stay inside, and binge watch Below Deck reruns. So if you are not feeling 100, go ahead, put on those college sweats and get comfy on that sofa with a cup of lemon ginger tea. Prioritizing self-care and honoring your body by skipping a few days of physical activity might just be what you need.

A good rule of thumb – If you have above-the-neck symptoms such as a light headache or runny nose, you likely can continue with your workout routine at a lower intensity. Fighting chest congestion, nausea, vomiting or experiencing a fever? Take at least a week off from your routine, focus on resting and stay at home until your infection clears and you are no longer likely to be contagious.

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