Exercising with a cold

For the first time ever, you’ve been sticking to a consistent workout routine.

You’re hitting the gym in the evenings, no matter what happy hour plans your coworkers goad you with. You’re even managing morning sessions — and, even more impressively, you’re staying true to the meal plan you committed to at the start of your program.

With this momentum, nothing will stop you from achieving your goals — until you start feeling that tickle in your throat. Then comes the coughing, then sneezing, and then you can’t sleep. You’ve caught a cold, and now that it’s here, your gains are in jeopardy. Do you push through the discomfort, or shut down your progress to recover?

Colds and other minor illnesses are bound to throw you off your game at one point or another, since the CDC estimates that US adults catch a cold two to three times a year. Since you’re going to have to deal with the symptoms either way, you should have a game plan to decide when it’s serious enough to pause your routine..

If you’re sick but still want to work out, ask yourself one question: Are your symptoms above or below your neck?

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If Your Symptoms Are Above the Neck

For symptoms isolated above the neck — think the congestion, sore throat, or sneezing of a common cold — you can continue light or moderate activity.

Try taking a non-drowsy decongestant to help fight your symptoms. If your energy level feels good enough, you can head to the gym: just dial back the intensity of your workout.

Aleksej SarifulinGetty Images

Think of your fellow gym-goers, too: Make sure you wash your hands, wipe down your equipment after use, and cough or sneeze into your shoulder rather than your hand to reduce the risk of spreading your germs to others.

If you start to feel worse, take down your intensity a notch or end your workout early, so you don’t make your sickness worse. And get back to your normal routine gradually: Diving back into intense exercise—especially when you’re not feeling 100 percent—can actually suppress your immune system, which can slow your recovery.

If Your Symptoms Are Below the Neck

If your symptoms are below the neck — coughing, shortness of breath, chest tightness, nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea — or system-wide, like fever or joint aches — you should flat-out skip your workout.

Moyo StudioGetty Images

These symptoms can point to a more serious infection.

Plus, not only will you likely not be able to tolerate your normal routine, but attempting it could also put you at risk for respiratory problems, dehydration, dizziness, or even passing out.

Are Some Workouts Better Than Others When You’re Sick?

The type of exercise you perform while sick doesn’t matter as much as the intensity. For instance, if you were set to do some sprints, try jogging instead. Or if you’re lifting that day, dial back your weight and up your reps—just make sure to take longer rest breaks than usual between your sets.

If you’re a fitness class junkie, it may be a good idea to skip the group workouts for a solo session. As previously mentioned, you’ll want to avoid spreading germs by sneezing in the middle of a crowded class.

Drew Watson, M.D., M.S., is a physician in the department of orthopedics and rehabilitation’s division of sports medicine at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health.

Melissa Matthews Health Writer Melissa Matthews is the Health Writer at Men’s Health, covering the latest in food, nutrition, and health.

Is Exercise Good for the Common Cold?

“Exercising with a cold or the flu is probably unlikely to cause complications if you do not have other medical problems,” says Dr. Liu. “However, if you have an underlying medical condition such as asthma, heart disease, or other medical illnesses, you should check with your doctor first, as exercise may worsen an underlying medical problem.”

Moderate exercise won’t prolong your illness or make your symptoms worse, but it may not shorten them, either. One possible benefit of exercising with a cold: If you’re generally well-hydrated, a workout can break up congestion, notes Dr. Durst. However, your congestion could worsen if you’re dehydrated.

When You Can Exercise With a Cold

“When you are sick, the most important thing to do is listen to your own body,” advises Liu. You can exercise if:

  • You want to and have the energy.
  • Your symptoms are mild, such as just a runny nose.
  • You have been fever-free for 24 hours.

When You Shouldn’t Exercise With a Cold

Avoid exercise when:

  • You have a fever.
  • Your body aches.
  • You have a cough.
  • You have flu symptoms, such as vomiting, diarrhea, or rash.
  • You have a cold along with chronic health concerns, such as heart disease or asthma.

While you may think you can sweat out a cold, Liu advises against it. If anything, the opposite is true. “Sweating does not help get rid of a cold,” she says. “Rest and staying hydrated by drinking liquids are important in helping you get better.”

Don’t Forget Cough and Common-Cold Etiquette

Gyms can turn into hotbeds of infection if people don’t take the right precautions when they’re working out with a cold. If you do go to the gym when you’re sick or recovering, mind your sick-person manners:

  • Cover your mouth with a facial tissue when you sneeze or cough, or cough into your shoulder — not your bare hands, which are more likely to spread germs.
  • Wipe off any equipment you use.
  • Throw used facial tissues in the trash.
  • Wash your hands with soap and water or use an alcohol-based sanitizer before and after your workout.

“Proper respiratory etiquette and hand hygiene are essential to prevent the spread of disease,” emphasizes Liu.

When Being Sick and Exercise Collide

“A person should always seek medical attention if during exercise they experience chest pain or indigestion, difficulty catching their breath, wheezing, feeling faint, worsening body aches, or cola-colored urine,” advises Durst.

If you can’t bear to take time off from your fitness routine to nurse a cold, it won’t hurt you to throw on your shoes and workout clothes. Just listen to your body, and oblige if you think you need a rest day. You’ll be back on the treadmill soon enough.

For a quick guide, remember these key points:

You’re okay to work out with:

  • Runny nose
  • Nasal congestion
  • Sore throat

Don’t exercise if you have:

  • A cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • Body aches
  • General chest congestion
  • A fever

Overall, regular exercise helps boost your immune system, but it’s important to go with how you feel, says Kenton Fibel, MD, a family medicine physician specializing in sports medicine at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles.

And as far as fitness helping you feel better, “Exercise releases a lot of hormones that may make you feel great, but that’s independent of having a cold,” says Dr. Adalja. So that concept may or may not apply when you’re not at your best.

Even if you’re “just” dealing with the common cold, you still shouldn’t feel obligated to go to the gym if you feel terrible. “In general, listen to your body and how you feel,” says Dr. Fibel.

Are any exercises better than others when you have a cold?

Just because you can work out doesn’t mean you should go all out. “This is not the time to go and do your most intense exercise routine,” Dr. Adam says. “Your body is still fighting an infectious disease.”

If you’re craving cardio, he recommends doing “light cardio” like a comfortable run, a light stationary bike workout, or a casual session on the elliptical. “Don’t go for as long as you normally would,” she says.

As for strength training, it can be challenging because a lot of times you’re already feeling fatigued, Dr. Adam says. “If you’re congested, it’s not a good idea to go with heavy weights, but lighter weights should be fine.” (Just wipe down the equipment well after you use it to do your fellow gym-goers a solid, Dr. Fibel advises.)

Best workouts when you have a cold:

  • Light run
  • Stationary bike
  • Elliptical
  • Light weights

Worst workouts when you have a cold:

  • Rigorous or long run
  • HIIT
  • Heavy weights

Does it matter if you exercise indoors or outdoors?

As far as weather goes, not really (provided we’re not talking extreme conditions here), Dr. Adam says. However, she points out, if you suffer from allergies on top of having the common cold, exercising outside during allergy season could be kind of miserable.

That said, “sometime cold air can trigger asthma like conditions, and colds can also provoke that phenomenon,” notes Dr. Adalja, “so in that context exercising in the cold air could be problematic.”

For indoor workouts, if you’re considering heading to a group fitness class, or cranking out strength training at a public gym…you may want to press pause. “If you are sneezing or coughing it probably makes sense to not expose others in an exercise class,” says Dr. Adalja. “Consider taking precautions by exercising at least six feet away from others, and not contaminating common surfaces.” And if you MUST use the gym equipment, be sure to wash your hands diligently before touching anything, then wipe down the tools once you’re done.

Don’t want to risk it? Try this light cardio workout you can do at home:

Whether you choose complete workout routine indoors or out, keep in mind that pushing your body too much—even if you feel like you can take it—can ultimately screw you over. “Exercising too hard when you’re sick can make it more difficult for your body to fight off the infection and can make it take longer for you to get better,” Dr. Fibel says.

What other precautions should you take?

While the “neck rule” is important to follow, there are some other nuances to consider. If you have a fever, you’re feeling really tired, you have nausea, or you have widespread muscle aches, don’t exercise, Dr. Adam says. Ditto if exercise makes you feel worse.

“It’s also important to make sure you’re adequately hydrated when working out while sick,” says Dr. Adalja, “since colds can be dehydrating.”

As for what to wear, there are no magic clothes that will help get rid of your cold during your workout (although there’s an idea…). “Just listen to your body,” Dr. Adam says. “If you’re feeling cold, make sure you have enough layers. Dress appropriately for the weather.”

If you’re still not sure if exercising with a cold makes sense for you, check with your doctor.

Bottom line: Experts stress that you shouldn’t feel obligated to exercise with a cold. But if you feel up for a light workout routine, it’s perfectly fine to do just that.

Korin Miller Korin Miller is a freelance writer specializing in general wellness, sexual health and relationships, and lifestyle trends, with work appearing in Men’s Health, Women’s Health, Self, Glamour, and more.

Why Does the Body Sweat When You’re Sick

Why the Body Sweats

In order to understand why the body sweats when it is sick it is important to first understand how sweat works with body temperature and homeostasis in the first place. The main reason that humans sweat is to maintain thermoregulation – the process that allows your body to maintain its core internal temperature. The body has several processes that allow it to heat up when needed like vasoconstriction (blood vessels shrinking) , piloerection (goosebumps), a decrease in sweating, increased muscle contraction, non-shivering thermogenesis, and seeking warm clothing or environments. However, when it comes to cooling down its internal temperature the body relies predominantly on sweating. Aside from sweating, there are no other known mechanisms the body has to reduce its temperature other than behavioral adjustments, like wearing heavier clothing and seeking warmer temperatures. This makes sweating critical to thermoregulation. In fact, sweating can dissipate heat from the body at a rate that is more than ten times the resting metabolic production of heat. Therefore, sweating is a powerful tool the body uses to quickly get rid of heat and maintain homeostasis. This comes into play when a person gets sick as a fever, one of the body’s main defences against illness, raises the body’s internal temperature.

Fever

A healthy person’s body tries to maintain a temperature around 98.6 degrees, although their temperature naturally fluctuates by about .9 degrees F throughout the day. However, this changes when a person develops a fever. Humans, and other mammals, usually develop a fever in response to infection, inflammation, or trauma. Fever can be defined as an adaptive response of the body to infection (or non-infective inflammatory issues) in which the hypothalamus raises the body’s thermoregulatory set point and the body’s temperature is consistently raised above a person’s normal daily temperature fluctuations. The body often uses fever to kill off foreign infections, but that is not always the case.

Once a person’s body initiates the fever process chemical messengers called pyrogens are released into the bloodstream. Pyrogens are part of the immune system response and, through a complex chemical process, cause a person’s body to raise in temperature. Once a person has a fever they will often exhibit symptoms like headache, malaise, anorexia and other sickness behaviours. A person with a fever will also experience heat generating mechanisms like skin vasoconstriction which leads to chills and goosebumps, muscle contractions (shivering), and a desire to be warm. Once a person’s temperature reaches its new high setpoint and a fever runs its course, the body lowers its setpoint and begins to employ body cooling processes. Due to the fact that sweating is the body’s primary way to cool itself down, people who are recovering from a fever often experience sweating as a part of that process. It is the body’s natural way of cooling itself down and regaining its normal homeostasis.

Other Situations

Excessive sweating that is not related to primary focal hyperhidrosis, or fever due to an infection or injury can be a sign of something more serious. Certain diseases and conditions can cause secondary hyperhidrosis, which is excessive sweating that is caused by an underlying issue. Some medications can also cause secondary hyperhidrosis. It is wise to seek medical assistance if you suspect that you may have secondary hyperhidrosis, a high or long-term fever, or experience excessive sweating accompanied by pallor and diaphoresis.

Sources

THE FACTS

Scientists recently confirmed the age-old notion that hot liquids can relieve some cold and flu symptoms. But what about a dose of heat on a much larger scale — say, in a sauna?

With temperatures of 176 Fahrenheit or greater, saunas have been recommended for arthritis, asthma and chronic fatigue, among other things, since they were used by nomads in Finland centuries ago. Some reputed benefits have not been examined, but there is evidence that saunas may speed recovery from colds and reduce their occurrence.

Some researchers suspect sauna heat reduces symptoms because it improves drainage, while others speculate that the high temperatures help weaken cold and flu viruses. Why this might prevent sickness in the first place, however, is unclear. But research suggests an effect.

Image Credit…Leif Parsons

In one study by Austrian researchers, for example, a group of 50 adults were split into two groups and tracked for six months. One group was instructed to use saunas regularly; the other group abstained. At the end of the study the sauna group had contracted fewer colds.

Does sweating help to cure the flu

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Can You Sweat Out A Cold? Experts Say It’s Not A Surefire Cure

If there’s anything I’ve learned from working in the health and wellness space, it’s that not every catchy phrase spewing words of wisdom is legit. For example, raise your hand (or not, since I can’t see you anyway) if you’ve heard the saying “sweat a cold.” Well, you can forget it, because it doesn’t mean what you think it does. Sweating out a cold is different than working up a sweat when you have a cold. The two aren’t quite one and the same, so if you ask your doctor, they’ll likely give you the go-ahead to exercise with the sniffles, but they aren’t exactly prescribing daily workouts to cure your illness.

Ask anyone who knows me and they’ll tell you, it’s really hard to pull me away from working out, even when I feel under the weather. Call it what you want to, but I believe fitness, like food, is a natural source of medicine for our bodies, but I can still acknowledge when it’s time to take a rest. Fighting off the case of the sniffles, however, isn’t that time, which is exactly what, I think, gets people confused about this idea of sweating out a cold.

Believe it or not, this idea of “sweating out a cold” dates back to Roman times, so the rumor’s been circulating for quite a while.

Giphy

Not to be cheesy, but I’m going to be cheesy and quote Lindsay Lohan when I say I’m tired of rumors starting, especially in the wellness space. Your health isn’t something to experiment with or take lightly, but once an idea or phrase catches on, people are quick to believe whatever sounds good. This clearly isn’t a new concept, either.

Dr. Danica Barron, assistant medical director at ParaDocs Worldwide Inc., explains that “sweating out a cold” isn’t anything new. In fact, the thought process behind it all dates all the way back to ancient Roman times, when people were afraid of fevers because they didn’t have the technology or knowledge to figure out what they were or how they start.

“Ancient Romans had at least three temples of febris dedicated to worshipping a god of fever and would try to appease this god by leaving amulets which had been attached to the bodies of fever-stricken patients,” Dr. Barron tells Elite Daily. “This notion continued until the 1900s when we gained a better understanding of how diseases worked, and when you cured the underlying illness, the fever would go away.”

Thankfully, we’ve come a long way from attaching amulets to our feverish bodies as a sacrifice to gods in order to get better, but the truth still stands: sweat’s not the answer, friends.

You can work out if you have a cold (make sure you double-check with your doctor though, just to be sure), but working up a sweat doesn’t actually do much for curing the infection.

Giphy

Here’s the thing about viral infections: Once you’ve been exposed, it’s going to run its course, whether you like it or not. There are plenty of things you can do to ease symptoms, of course — like sticking to a basic diet of chicken soup and toast, drinking plenty of herbal tea, and going to bed on time — but, either way, the infection starts and ends on its own terms.

As far as exercise goes, FitWell spokesperson Ben Jones says that, to his knowledge, there’s no solid evidence that says you can sweat out a cold. Exercising when you have a cold can, however, make you feel a little better. “Some people get a buzz after exercise from the endorphins that are released by the exercise,” he tells Elite Daily. “This could make them feel better and give the impression that the cold is improving.”

In other words, it’s more of a mentality thing than anything else. When you catch a cold, your number one priority should be rest, so Dr. Ian Tong, chief medical officer at Doctor On Demand, suggests waiting at least 48 hours after the onset of a cold or flu-related fever before hitting up the gym.

The whole point of exercising — you know, besides toning and gaining muscle and all that — is to strengthen your immune system. Sticking to a regular routine is an excellent way to prevent sickness, but when you’re already sick, exercise can put more stress on your body and actually lower your body’s immunity and ability to ward off illness. It sounds counterintuitive, right? That’s because it is.

“If you have a cold and have not been resting or eating and drinking regularly because you have been sick,” Dr. Tong tells Elite Daily, “then you could risk getting dehydrated and you should never exercise when you are dehydrated. Doing so can lower blood pressure dangerously and cause loss of consciousness.”

So if you have cold, it’s in your best interest to take a rest day or two and focus on more effective ways to recover.

Giphy

Now that we know sweating out a cold is just an illusion, let’s focus on all the things that can get us through a viral infection.

Obviously, drinking a ton of fluids and getting enough rest are a given, but how you go about resting is also important. If you’re the type of person who, like me, cannot sit still, I highly suggest giving it your best shot when you’re under the weather. Better yet, don’t just lie on the couch watching Netflix all day; take a nap.

Chris Brantner, certified sleep science coach and founder of Sleep Zoo, says the main thing your body needs to ward off a cold is *surprise* sleep. When you snooze, your immune system is performing the three Rs: resting, regrouping, and reenergizing. Additionally, Brantner tells Elite Daily, your body adjusts its sleep cycle during sickness, allowing for more “slow-wave sleep to fight the infection.” In other words, feel free to press snooze when you’re feeling sniffly.

This tip might come off as random, but you may also want to consider stopping by your local florist and picking up a plant that helps you sleep better. Yes, that’s actually a thing. It turns out, plants that look pretty and smell divine — like chamomile, lavender, snake plants, and even aloe vera — are natural air-purifiers that get rid of any toxins or bacteria floating around, which can make you feel sick. They’re also deliciously aromatic, and act as mild sedatives to soothe your body and lull you to sleep. Snoozing and lovely smells?Sounds like the perfect road to recovery to me.

Exercise when sick: Should you sweat it out? Or rest and recover?

Everybody gets sick. But it’s tough to know what to do about it; do you exercise when sick or not?

Should you “sweat it out”? Or get some rest instead?

In this article we clear up the confusion. Next time you come down with the flu or a cold, you’ll know what to do.

  • Want to see our visual guide? Check out the infographic here…

Your friendly neighborhood gym. You’re warmed up and ready for a great workout.

Then, all the sudden, Mr. Sneezy walks by. Coughing, sniffling, and heavy mouth-breathing. He’s spraying all over the benches and mats.

“Dude, shouldn’t you just stay home and rest?” you’re thinking.

(And, while you’re at it, stop sharing those nasty germs?)

But maybe Mr. Sneezy’s onto something. Maybe he’ll be able to sweat the sickness out of his system, boosting his immune system along the way.

What’s the right approach? Let’s explore.

The immune system: A quick and dirty intro

Every single day, bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites come at us. Folks, it’s a germ jungle out there!

The most common invaders are upper respiratory tract invaders, or URTI’s. Yep, I’m talking about

  • colds,
  • coughs,
  • influenza,
  • sinusitis,
  • tonsillitis,
  • throat infections, and
  • middle ear infections.

Luckily, our immune system has got a plan. When faced with foreign attack, it works hard to defend us. Without the immune system, we’d never have a healthy day in our lives.

Our immune cells originate in our bone marrow and thymus. They interact with invaders through the lymph nodes, the spleen, and mucus membranes.

This means they first make contact in your mouth, gut, lungs, and urinary tract.

The innate and adaptive immune response

Our innate (natural) immune system is our non-specific first line of defense.

It includes:

  • physical/structural barriers (like the mucous lining in nasal passages),
  • chemical barriers (like our stomach acids), and
  • protective cells (like our natural killer ‘NK’ cells, white blood cells that can destroy harmful invaders).

This immune system develops when we’re young.

Interestingly, women tend to have a stronger overall innate immune response. (Maybe this is why they often do better than men when it comes to colds. But they suffer more often from autoimmune diseases.)

Then there’s the adaptive (acquired) immune system.

This is a more sophisticated system composed of highly specialized cells and processes. It kicks in when the innate immune system is overcome.

The adaptive immune system helps us fight infections by preventing pathogens from colonizing and by destroying microorganisms like viruses and bacteria.

Cue the T and B cells. These specialized white blood cells mature in the thymus and bone marrow, respectively. And believe it or not, they actually have a kind of memory.

It’s this memory that makes them so effective. Once they “recognize” a specific pathogen, they mobilize more effectively to fight it.

This is what we mean when we talk about “building immunity.”

Ever wondered why kids get sick with viruses more often than adults? It’s because they haven’t had as much exposure so their adaptive immune systems are less mature.

What’s more, the acquired immune response is the basis for vaccination. Subject your body to a tiny dose of a pathogen, and it will know what to do when confronted with a bigger dose.

Genius!

Should you exercise while sick?

Let’s get one thing clear from the start: there’s a difference between “working out” and “physically moving the body.”

A structured workout routine — one where you’re breathing heavily, sweating, working hard, and feeling some discomfort — awakens a stress response in the body.

When we’re healthy, our bodies can easily adapt to that stress. Over time, this progressive adaptation is precisely what makes us fitter and stronger.

But when we’re sick, the stress of a tough workout can be more than our immune systems can handle.

Still, there’s no reason to dive for the couch the minute you feel the sniffles coming on. Unless you’re severely out of shape, non-strenuous movement shouldn’t hurt you — and it might even help.

What do I mean by “non-strenuous movement”?

Well, it might include:

  • walking (preferably outdoors),
  • low intensity bike riding (again, outdoors),
  • gardening,
  • practicing T’ai Chi.

In fact, all of these activities have been shown to boost immunity.

They aren’t intense enough to create serious immune-compromising stress on the body. Instead, they often help you feel better and recover faster while feeling under the weather.

That’s why Dr. Berardi often recommends low intensity non-panting “cardio” when suffering from colds. Done with minimal heart rate elevation, preferably outside, these activities seem to offer benefits.

What about “working out”?

Non-strenuous movement and purposefully working out are different.

Plus, as you probably know, not all workouts are created equal. There are low intensity workouts and high intensity workouts — and all sorts of workouts in between.

But what’s low to one person might be high to another. So how can you decide what level of intensity counts as strenuous?

Let your own perceived level of exertion be your guide.

In general, a low to moderate intensity workout will leave you feeling energized. A high intensity workout, on the other hand, delivers an ass-kicking.

If you’re sick, it makes sense to avoid the ass-kicking.

Let’s take a look at why.

How exercise affects the immune system

Exercise may play a role in both our innate and our adaptive immune response.

Here’s how:

  • After one prolonged vigorous exercise session we’re more susceptible to infection. For example, running a marathon may temporarily depress the adaptive immune system for up to 72 hours. This is why so many endurance athletes get sick right after races.
  • However, one brief vigorous exercise session doesn’t cause the same immune-suppressing effect. Further, just one moderate intensity exercise session can actually boost immunity in healthy folks.
  • Interestingly, chronic resistance training seems to stimulate innate (but not adaptive) immunity. While chronic moderate exercise seems to strengthen the adaptive immune system.

In the end, here’s the pattern:

  • Consistent, moderate exercise and resistance training can strengthen the immune system over time. So, by all means, train hard while you’re healthy.
  • But single high intensity or long duration exercise sessions can interfere with immune function. So take it easy when you’re feeling sick.

Exercise, stress, and immune function

A group of scientists gathering data on exercise habits and influenza found:

  • People who never exercised got sick pretty often.
  • People who exercised between once a month and three times a week did the best.
  • People who exercised more than four times a week got sick most often.

Enter the J-shaped curve theory.

In simple terms, being sedentary or exercising too much can lower immunity, while something in the middle can improve immunity.

The role of stress

Exercise isn’t the only factor that affects the immune system. Stress plays a big role too.

Let’s take a look at the different stressors a person might face on any given day.

Stress triggers an entire cascade of hormonal shifts that can result in chronic immune changes.

  • Acute stress (minutes to hours) can be beneficial to immune health.
  • Chronic stress (days to years) can be a big problem.

So, if you’re angry, worried, or scared each day for weeks, months, or even years at a time, your immunity is being compromised. And you’re more likely to get sick.

Sickness and stress

It’s pretty obvious that if you’re actually sick and fighting an infection, your immune system will already be stressed.

And if you add the stress of prolonged vigorous exercise, you might, quite simply, overload yourself. That will make you sicker.

Plus, your history of infections can influence how the immune system responds during exercise. This can include everything from the common herpes simplex virus, varicella zoster, and cytomegalovirus, to hepatitis and HIV.

A healthy body might adapt to all that. But a body that’s fighting an infection is not a healthy body.

Overtraining and infection

What’s more, sudden increases in exercise volume and/or intensity may also create new stress, potentially allowing a new virus or bacteria to take hold, again kicking off a sickness.

Consider the 1987 Los Angeles Marathon, where one out of seven marathon runners who ran became sick within a week following the race. And those training more than 60 miles per week before the race doubled their odds for sickness compared to those training less than 20 miles per week.

This seems to work the opposite way as well. Chronic infections may actually be a sign of overtraining.

Learning from cancer & HIV

Exercise therapy is often recommended for patients with cancer in part because of how it modulates the immune system. Exercise seems to increase NK cell activity and lymphocyte proliferation. In other words, it looks like exercise can be helpful.

Exercise interventions in those with HIV seem to help prevent muscle wasting, enhance cardiovascular health, and improve mood. We’re not sure how this works, though it may help to increase CD4+ cells.

Other factors affecting immunity

Besides stress, there are a host of other factors that can affect our immunity, and these can interact with exercise, either offering greater protection or making us more likely to get sick.

We’ve already touched on some of these. Here are a few more.

Age

Our innate immune response can break down as we get older. But here’s the good news: staying physically active and eating a nutritious diet can offset many of these changes.

Gender

Menstrual phase and oral contraceptive use may influence how the immune system responds to exercise. Estrogens generally enhance immunity while androgens can suppress it. (Again, this may explain why women tend to do better with colds than men.)

Sleep

Poor quality sleep and/or prolonged sleep deprivation jeopardizes immune function.

Climate

Exercising in a hot or cold environment doesn’t appear to be that much more stressful than exercising in a climate controlled environment.

For example, exercising in a slightly cool environment might boost the immune system. But full-fledged hypothermia may suppress immune function. While using a sauna or hot bath may stimulate better immunity in those with compromised immune function.

Altitude

Exposure to higher altitudes has a limited influence on immunity.

Obesity

It’s unclear exactly how obese folks respond to exercise in terms of immunity. Changes in insulin sensitivity and inflammation at rest may blunt or exaggerate their immune response to exercise.

Mood

There’s evidence that immune alterations affect mood and inflammation. Clinical depression is two to threefold higher among patients with diseases that have elevated inflammatory activity.

(Note: moderate exercise appears to act as an anti-inflammatory in those with inflammatory conditions).

IL-6

There is a theory that IL-6 (a compound released after prolonged intensive exercise) may be produced in abnormal ways in some people, leading to fatigue, flu-like symptoms, and depressed mood.

Training age

The more “trained” you are, the better your body tends to handle exercise. In other words, it’s not as much of a stressor.

Just in case you glossed over the previous sentence I’ll reiterate it: a higher level of fitness is protective as it may limit the stress response to exercise.

Textbook guidelines for exercising while sick

  • Day 1 of illness:
    Only low intensity exercise with symptoms like sore throat, coughing, runny nose, congested nose.
    No exercise at all when experiencing muscle/joint pain, headache, fever, malaise, diarrhea, vomiting.
  • Day 2 of illness:
    If body temp >37.5-38 C, or increased coughing, diarrhea, vomiting, do not exercise.
    If no fever or malaise and no worsening of “above the neck” symptoms: light exercise (pulse <120 bpm) for 30-45 minutes, by yourself, indoors if winter.
  • Day 3 of illness:
    If fever and symptoms still present: consult doctor.
    If no fever/malaise, and no worsening of initial symptoms: moderate exercise (pulse <150 bpm) for 45-60 min, by yourself, indoors.
  • Day 4 of illness:
    If no symptom relief, no exercise. Go to doctor.
    If fever and other symptoms improved, wait 24 hours, then return to exercise.
    If new symptoms appear, go to doctor.

Note: Some illnesses can indicate serious infections. So if you aren’t feeling better and recovering, see your doctor.

Also note: Ease back into exercise in proportion to the length of your sickness. If you were sick for 3 days. Take 3 days to ease back in.

To exercise or not? What the pros recommend

Now you know something about the immune system and how exercise interacts with it. But you still might be wondering whether you should exercise when you’re sick. I asked some of the best in the business for their insights.

The consensus: Let your symptoms be your guide and use common sense. And remember the distinction between exercise and working out.

INSIGHT 1 Nick Tumminello

I follow the general guideline that if it’s above the neck, it’s okay to train, and do so at an intense level. Just wash your hands before you touch all of the equipment to minimize giving your head cold to others at the facility. Anything below the neck, don’t come into the gym, and take it easy until you’re on the back end of it.

INSIGHT 2 Alwyn Cosgrove

Basically we don’t like people to train when they are ill. I can’t see any upside to doing so.

INSIGHT 3 Dr. Bryan Walsh

Let your symptoms be your guide. If you’re up for a walk or some light cardio, go for it. If you want to do some lighter weight, higher rep stuff just to keep things moving, that’s probably okay, too. But if you want to sit around watching re-runs of Married With Children, laughter is great medicine as well.

INSIGHT 4 Dean Somerset

Typically I ask clients to stay out of the gym if they have a cold. For one, their own workouts may not be very productive especially if they have respiratory congestion or irritation, and second because I don’t want to catch it! The gym typically isn’t the cleanest place in the world, so a cold bug could be easily spread around through the population by handling equipment or through respiratory droplets in the air.

INSIGHT 5 Dr. Spencer Nadolsky

With a viral URTI, I have no problem with my patients doing some light exercise. Anecdotally, sometimes it makes them feel better. There’s data to show those who exercise actually get less URTIs. If it’s a little more severe such as influenza (or something similar), I generally keep them focused on hydration and tell them to skip the workout. If they have any history of asthma, I am careful to make sure they have their rescue inhaler if they do feel up to exercising.

INSIGHT 6 Dr. Christopher Mohr

In terms of exercise, I let them “decide” what’s best for them depending on how they feel. If you can’t stop coughing or your head feels like it’s about to explode, I’d suggest taking some down time and getting plenty of sleep, including naps if possible. For me, I’ve found a short walk is still significantly better than nothing — and trying to get outside to do that vs. being stuck on a treadmill walking in circles. Trying to move iron in the gym is a bit much.

INSIGHT 7 Eric Cressey

I generally ask them just how bad it is on a scale of 0 to 10. Zero would be feeling absolutely fine, whereas a 10 would be the worst they’ve ever felt (e.g., violently ill and on their death bed). If it’s anything under a 3 (say, seasonal allergies), I’m fine with them training — albeit at a lower volume and intensity. We might even just do some mobility work or something to that effect.

I think the important separating factor is that we’re looking for the difference between just not feeling 100% (allergies, stress, headache) and actually being sick and contagious, which we absolutely don’t want in the gym — for the sake of that individual and those who are training around him/her.

Of course, this is pretty subjective — but what I think it does help us to do is avoid skipping days that would have been productive training days. Everyone has had those sessions when they showed up feeling terrible, but after the warm-up, they felt awesome and went on to have great training sessions. We don’t want to sit home and miss out on those opportunities, but we also don’t want to get sicker or make anyone else sicker — so it’s a definite balancing act.

INSIGHT 8 Dr. John Berardi

Unless you’re feeling like a train wreck I always recommend low intensity, low heart rate “cardio” during the first few days of sickness. Generally I prefer 20-30 minute walks done either outside (in the sunshine) or on a home treadmill (if you can’t get outside).

If you keep the intensity low and the heart rate down you’ll end up feeling better during the activity. And you’ll likely stimulate your immune system and speed up your recovery too. But even if you don’t speed up your recovery, you’ll feel better for having moved.

Exercise activity cheat sheet

Activities to consider when you’re sick.

  • Walking
  • Jogging
  • Swimming
  • Biking
  • Qi gong
  • T’ai Chi
  • Yoga

All of these would be done at a low intensity, keeping your heart rate low. They’d also preferably be done outdoors in mild temperatures. Inside is fine, though, if you can’t get outside.

Activities to avoid when you’re sick.

  • Heavy strength training
  • Endurance training
  • High intensity interval training
  • Sprinting or power activities
  • Team sports
  • Exercise in extreme temperatures

And, for the sake of the rest of us, stay out of the gym. At the gym, you’re much more likely to spread your germs to others. Viruses spread by contact and breathing the air near sick people.

So, if you feel up to physical activity, again: do it outside or at your home gym.

We all thank you.

What you should do

If you feel healthy and simply want to prevent getting sick:

  • Stay moderately active most days of the week.
  • If you participate in high-intensity workouts, make sure you’re getting enough rest and recovery time.
  • Manage extreme variations in stress levels, get plenty of sleep, and wash your hands.

If you are already feeling sick, let symptoms be your guide.

  • Consider all the stress you’re managing in your life (e.g., psychological, environmental, and so forth).
  • With a cold/sore throat (no fever or body aches/pains), easy exercise is likely fine as tolerated. You probably don’t want to do anything vigorous, no matter how long in duration.
  • If you have a systemic illness with fever, elevated heart rate, fatigue, vomiting, diarrhea, muscle and joint pain/weakness, and enlarged lymph nodes, get some rest! If you have a serious virus and you exercise, it can cause problems.

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You can’t sweat out a cold, and trying to could make it harder for you to recover

  • If you try to sweat out a cold, you risk dehydrating yourself. This can backfire and prevent you from recovering as fast.
  • When you have a fever, doctors recommend acetaminophen to lower your fever and prevent you from sweating and subsequent fluid loss.
  • Research suggests that regular exercise can strengthen your immune system and lower your risk of catching a cold.
  • This article was reviewed by Tania Elliott, MD, who specializes in infectious diseases related to allergies and immunology for internal medicine at NYU Langone Health.
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

There are plenty of ways to get over a cold. Eat the right foods. Get plenty of rest. And stay hydrated.

But there are other cold “remedies” you might come across that, well, just aren’t as helpful. One is “sweating out a cold.”

Why you can’t sweat out a cold

The biggest concern with trying to sweat out a cold is that you’re losing fluids, which can dehydrate you. And that’s obviously the opposite of what you need.

“When you’re sick, one of the most important things is to stay hydrated,” says Joshua Septimus, an associate professor of clinical medicine at the Houston Methodist Research Institute.

Now, a 2015 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences involving mice says that the common viral strain for the cold, called rhinovirus, thrived most in temperatures below 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. So the theory was that increasing your body temperature beyond that (ie. sweating) would prevent the virus from thriving.

But Septimus says there’s no data showing that increased body temperature helps fight a cold, and, we are not mice. In fact, we want to minimize fluid loss from sweating, which is one of the reasons why doctors recommend acetaminophen when you have a fever.

When sweating can help

Regular exercise can help you build a strong immune system to fend off infections like the cold.

Sweating might not get rid of a cold, but there are activities related to sweating that can help you fend off a cold or relieve symptoms. For example, exercise.

A 2015 study published in Progress in Molecular Biology and Translational Science suggested that immune-boosting effects from moderate exercise could help prevent colds. But the study also suggested that too much exercise had the opposite effect.

Exercise can also help decrease nasal congestion for a short time. The key thing to remember, Septimus says, is to listen to your body. If symptoms are mild and there is no fever, aches, or serious fatigue, exercise could be beneficial.

But rest when you need it. Fever, aches, and feeling weak are signs of distress and exercise could further tax your immune system. This could possibly cause the worst part of a cold to last longer than its typical three to five days, Septimus says.

Sitting in a hot, steamy room — like your bathroom with the door closed and a hot shower going — can also help. You’ll probably start to sweat from the heat and humidity, but it’s not the sweat that’s important — it’s the steam. Breathing it in can temporarily relieve your congestion.

Related stories:

  • To get over a cold fast, eat foods rich in vitamins and minerals like vitamin C, zinc, magnesium, and calcium
  • You’re probably not washing your hands long enough, and it could be making you sick
  • You can’t get the flu from the flu shot, but there are side effects
  • The common causes of a runny nose and how to stop it
  • How long the flu should last and when you should see a doctor

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