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Should You Work Out When You're Sick?

With any exercise routine, it’s important to balance workout frequency with adequate rest. Research has consistently found that frequency is more important than duration when it comes to effective fitness routines. While making time for daily exercise is key, it’s also essential to schedule one or two rest days each week to give your muscles and body time to recover and see lasting benefits. 

When you’re feeling under the weather, it’s difficult to know how to manage wanting to give your body time to recover from an illness while also continuing to make progress toward your fitness and health goals. 

Should you work out when you’re sick? There is no single answer to this question, but there are several factors that everyone should take into consideration when deciding whether or not to work out when sick, including what your body is telling you, the intensity of the workout in question, and certain situations when exercise should definitely be off the table. 

Listen to Your Body 

Every individual is different, and illnesses affect people differently. That’s why it’s so important to listen to your body and tune into the signals that it’s sending you. You’re the best judge of whether or not you should workout when sick. Signals to pay attention to include:

Symptom Severity

There’s a big difference between mild sickness and severe illness. If you have the common cold with minor symptoms such as a runny nose, sneezing, and some nasal congestion, you can probably follow your exercise routine with little issue. If you have more severe symptoms or a more serious illness such as the flu or COVID-19, it’s a better idea to skip your usual workout for some recovery time.

How Exercise Feels

If you do decide to start a workout when sick, make sure to monitor how it’s making your body feel. If you feel like you normally do when exercising or only feel mild additional fatigue, you can likely keep exercising. If you start to feel significant exhaustion or seriously unwell, you should stop what you’re doing and give your body time to rest.  

Warning Signs

Certain symptoms are indicators that sticking to your typical fitness routine is not a good plan. Body aches, a fever, chest congestion, a productive cough, low energy levels, and stomach symptoms are all indicators that exercise should be avoided. 

Changes in Your Metrics

Changes in your physiological metrics are another example of signals from your body that you can pick up on. Elevations in your respiratory rate or skin temperature and alterations to your HRV or RHR can all be signs of illness. Monitoring your metrics for these kinds of changes can help you catch a sickness in the early stages, or track how your body is faring over the course of an illness.

WHOOP Health Monitor metrics can also offer insight into how your body is responding to workouts when you’re sick, providing a guide to help you determine whether or not you should exercise on a given day, so you can make necessary adjustments to your fitness routine. For example, if you’re overdoing it and seeing elevated metrics, you should consider limiting your workouts or devoting more time to rest and recovery.

Take Care of Your Health

Whether you decide to exercise or not when you’re sick, there are steps you can take to promote recovery and support both your immune system and overall health, including:

  • Hydration — 60% of the body is made up of water, and it’s involved in many key physiological processes. Staying hydrated is important for maintaining everyday bodily function, and is especially vital during illness. Proper hydration helps with temperature regulation, managing nasal irritation from coughing and sneezing, and ensuring the skin and mucous membranes can guard against bacterial entry.
  • Proper Nutrition — A healthy diet has many benefits, including reduced risk of diabetes and certain cancers, improved mental health symptoms, and better heart health. In addition, proper nutrition can help maintain a healthy immune response. A diet that includes optimal amounts of all of the key vitamins, minerals, and essential nutrients supports cellular function in the body. Eating balanced meals ensures that the cells involved in the immune response are ready to spring into action when presented with infection, illness, or inflammation. 
  • Healthy Food Choices — When you’re not feeling well, it can be tempting to eat processed foods or comfort foods. Sticking to a healthy, balanced diet when you’re dealing with an illness is often recommended to help give your body’s immune system a boost when it needs it the most. Specific nutrients that have been linked to immune health include protein, vitamin C, iron, vitamin D, and zinc. Examples of healthy food choices to try when you’re sick are oranges, spinach, yogurt, green tea, poultry, and ginger.

The Role of Intensity 

Recent research has found that exercise intensity is an important factor in determining the impact of workouts on immune health. Studies have found that moderate-intensity exercise is especially effective in supporting the immune system in healthy individuals. Research indicates that immune cell circulation in the body is elevated in response to moderate exercise.

This suggests that maintaining a consistent fitness routine can help train the body’s immune response to spring into action when needed, such as in the case of illness. Additional benefits of exercise such as improved sleep quality, reduced stress, and lower levels of inflammation in the body are also known for promoting a healthy immune system. 

Moderate-intensity exercise can boost immune health as part of a regular exercise routine in the absence of acute illness. If you’re feeling sick, moderate exercise should not be attempted as a method for fighting off infection or inflammation. Instead, experts recommend reducing the intensity of your workouts when you’re sick. High-intensity workouts should be avoided to minimize strain on the body and prevent worsening of symptoms.

Low-impact, mild-intensity activities are a better choice if you’re going to work out when sick. For example, walking, stretching, and gentle yoga are all great options to consider.

When to Skip Exercise

In certain instances, exercise will do your body more harm than good and should be avoided. For example, you should skip exercise if you are experiencing serious symptoms such as:

  • Fever
  • Severe coughing
  • Body weakness
  • Significant fatigue
  • Vomiting

One general rule that experts often refer to is that “above the neck” symptoms are okay to exercise with (think sneezing, runny nose, or slight headache), while “below the neck” symptoms mean exercise should be avoided (think chest congestion, full body aches, or digestive upset). 

Consider Your Workout Environment 

If you typically work out in a communal space such as a gym or local fitness center, it’s better to relocate when you’re sick. Even if you only have mild symptoms, it’s better to make the responsible choice to avoid spreading the illness to others. If you’re feeling sick but still want to get a fitness session in, consider swapping out your usual exercises for an at-home workout routine.

Simple strength training exercises, stretching routines, yoga, and walking are all examples of mild types of exercise you can try at home when sick. If you enjoy taking your workouts outdoors, be mindful of the temperature. Cold weather can exacerbate certain symptoms, such as coughing, difficulty breathing, headaches and nasal congestion.

Prioritize Rest

If you’re feeling unsure about whether or not you should be working out, give yourself the option to take a break. There’s nothing wrong with prioritizing rest and recovery, and checking your WHOOP Recovery Score can help guide your decision about working out while under the weather. While you might miss out on a few workouts, your body will have the opportunity to focus exclusively on fighting the illness and healing quickly. If you give your body a break, you’ll more than likely be back in the gym and feeling better than ever in no time. 

Track Your Health with WHOOP

WHOOP gives you unparalleled insight into your health on both a long-term and daily basis. With WHOOP, you can observe trends in your health metrics and see changes to your baseline – a sign you might be getting sick. WHOOP can help you spot signs of illness early so you can give your body time to recover before diving back into your fitness routine. The WHOOP Journal can also be used to track illness and see its impact on your overall health. Monitor your health with WHOOP today.