Working Out While Sick: The Best (and Worst) Exercises You Can Do

Don't let a case of the sniffles derail your regular routine.

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If you're feeling under the weather, exercise may be the last thing you feel like doing—and it's true that when your body's already under a lot of stress (like an illness), making it do more work isn't always a good idea. But in some cases, light to moderate activity may actually help you feel better, Richard Besser, MD, author of "Tell Me the Truth, Doctor: Easy-to-Understand Answers to Your Most Confusing and Critical Health Questions," told Health.

Dr. Besser referenced the "neck rule," which essentially separates the body into two sections: above and below the neck. It's safe to break a sweat if you have above-the-neck symptoms such as:

Anything below the neck, however, likely requires you to rest up for a few days to give your body a fighting chance at whatever's ailing you. Illnesses below the neck include:

Even with those guidelines, you should still pay attention to how your body's feeling—if you don't feel like working out with significant sinus congestion, don't. And if you're having significant above-the-neck symptoms like severe headaches or double vision, a workout is definitely not a good idea; instead, be sure to check in with a healthcare provider or go to the nearest emergency room.

But if you're experiencing more minor symptoms and do opt for a quick workout, some exercises are better than others. Here are some of the best (and worst) workout options to consider when you're feeling just a little under the weather but still want to be active.

Best Exercises To Do While Sick

If you're sick but are still itching to work out, these exercises can be performed at a lower intensity than some alternatives. This makes them a better option when you're not feeling your best.

Walking

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A cold may compromise your energy levels, so you may not feel up for intense physical fitness. But even just a 20-minute walk can help you reap the benefits of regular exercise, and it may also help improve your cold symptoms.

"If your sinuses are plugged up, walking will stimulate you to take deep breaths and can help open up those passages," said Dr. Besser. (Of course, if you discover that walking—or any physical exertion—makes you feel worse rather than better, stop and focus on getting rest, instead.) Although there's little research on how exercise can affect the duration of a cold, researchers think regular exercise may increase your immunity to certain illnesses.

Jogging

Two Young Women Running

As long as jogging is part of your routine, there's no reason you need to skip it just because of a mild head cold. "My patients who are runners all say that running helps them feel better when they're sick," said Andrea Hulse, DO, a family practitioner (and runner) in Silver Spring, Maryland. "Running is a natural decongestant, and it can help clear your head and feel normal again."

But if you're sick, you can (and should) scale back the intensity of your run, Hulse said, since your body is already working in overdrive to help fight off infection. And you should hold off entirely if you're experiencing flu-like or below-the-neck symptoms, like nausea or vomiting.

Qi Gong

Practicing Qi Gong

This slow, mindful movement is a cross between martial arts and meditation. It's low-intensity enough for days that you don't feel like breaking a serious sweat, and it has been used for thousands of years to reduce stress and anxiety, improve blood flow, and increase energy. (In Chinese medicine, this is known as regulating and healing the body's "chi," or energy force.)

Qi gong may have immunity-boosting powers, as well: A meta-analysis from 2020 published in Medicines found evidence that the practice enhances immune function and suppresses inflammation but noted that more rigorous studies are needed.

Yoga

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Research suggests that stress-relieving techniques—such as yoga and breathing exercises—may help boost immunity and reduce inflammation, according to a meta-study published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine in 2018. Plus, said Dr. Besser, gentle stretching may help relieve aches and pains related to colds and sinus infections.

Choose a slower style of practice, like Hatha or Iyengar yoga, if you're worried about overdoing it with vigorous sun salutations. Or focus on restorative postures at home, like Child's Pose and Legs Up the Wall.

Dance

Caucasian dancers rehearsing in gym

Not only is taking a Zumba or cardio dance class—or even just rocking out to your favorite tunes while you clean the house—a safe form of exercise when you have above-the-neck symptoms, but it may also help you feel better. A 2021 article in Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice found that dance can reduce stress levels, something that's been linked with better immune function.

Dance classes tend to be low impact, so you can break a sweat without putting too much stress on your joints (or aggravating a cold-related sinus headache). You can also go at your own pace: Take it easy on days you're not feeling 100 percent, and try to enjoy the party.

Worst Exercises to Do While Sick

In general, it's not the best time to up your workout game when you're feeling under the weather. Here are some exercises to avoid when you're not at your best.

Machines at the Gym

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In addition to how you exercise when you're sick, it's also important to consider where you exercise: "If your workout involves going to the gym and being in close contact with other people, you need to ask yourself if you'd want someone else with your symptoms doing the same thing," said Dr. Besser. "If you would not like the person next to you on the treadmill or who finishes before you on the elliptical to be sneezing and coughing and wiping their nose, then do your fellow gym mates a favor and do a lighter workout at home, instead."

Germs can spread easily on machines and in the locker room, he added, so it's best to stay away while you're contagious.

Lifting Weights

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Your strength and performance will likely be diminished while you're battling a cold, especially if you've missed out on quality sleep, putting you at increased risk for injury while trying to lift heavy equipment, said Dr. Besser, adding that the muscle strain required to lift weights can cause sinus pressure and headaches to feeling even worse.

Still don't want to skip a strength workout? Do it at home, where you won't be spreading germs and sharing sickness with other weight lifters, and give yourself a break by using lighter dumbbells than usual. (Increase your reps, not the weight, if you need more of a challenge, said Hulse.)

Team Sports

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Just like using the treadmill or weight machines at the gym, sports involving physical contact can encourage the spread of illness. "If you're a pro athlete, then your coaches and teammates may expect you to be out there no matter what," said Dr. Besser. "But in something like a friendly neighborhood basketball league, they're going to thank you for sitting one out."

Cold and flu viruses spread through droplets, like tears and saliva—but also through hand-to-hand contact. "If you wipe your nose and then you pass the ball, you've just passed those germs on, as well," Dr. Besser said. For example, a 2020 study published in Public Health in Practice found that high concentrations of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, could remain active on footballs, tennis balls, and other sports balls for a short period.

Anything Outdoors in the Cold

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Working out in freezing temps may be detrimental to some people battling cold symptoms, but not for the reason you may think. Contrary to popular belief, cold weather will not lower immunity or cause you to get sick—not even if you go outside without a coat or sweat so much your hair gets wet.

What can happen, however, is that cold, dry air can restrict or irritate airways—triggering a runny nose, coughing, or asthma-like symptoms, said Hulse. If you are sensitive to these conditions, winter activities like skiing, snowboarding, or snowshoeing might be even more difficult when you have a cold.

Exercises That Might Be Okay to Do While Sick

Like walking and jogging, other forms of moderate cardio can help clear congestion and boost energy levels, said Hulse—but they won't work for everyone. "It's really a matter of personal preference, what type of symptoms you have, and what your normal routine is like," Hulse explained.

Swimming

Swimming can feel quite refreshing, and swimming indoors may help open up airways due to the humid air. (For people who have allergies, it can also help by washing away pollen and dust.)

But some people may find it difficult to breathe while congested or may be irritated by chlorinated waters.

Biking

Biking can also be a nice, moderate exercise, but you may want to avoid biking on a congested road when you're battling a cold. According to the Respiratory Health Association, inhaling pollutants can irritate your airways and cause symptoms such as shortness of breath and coughing, which could make you feel worse if you're already feeling unwell.

Exercising With Allergies

Young woman with symptoms of coronavirus sneezing standing in blooming orchard. Young ill person having flu, running nose and fever standing in spring park
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Sometimes, what people think of as recurring cold symptoms—sneezing, headaches, nasal congestion—are actually allergies in disguise. "If you find that you are seeing those symptoms come on at the same time each year, you might want to ask your doctor about getting tested," said Besser.

If you have allergies, there are multiple factors to consider when deciding whether exercising is a good idea.

Location. Your allergy might be triggered depending on where you plan to exercise. If you want to exercise outdoors, you may have to contend with potential allergens like pollen, the most common trigger of outdoor allergies.

Meanwhile, allergies to dust, mold, or harsh cleaners can be triggered by workouts at the gym or in other enclosed spaces.

Weather. Allergies to pollen can make outdoor exercise difficult in the spring and fall, said Besser. During this time, The American Association of Otolaryngic Allergy recommends waiting to exercise outdoors until after it rains. Due to the high pollen county, you may also want to avoid exercising outside when it's dry, windy, or has reached the hottest part of the day.

Time of day. The American Association of Otolaryngic Allergy suggests exercising outdoors in the early morning when dew keeps pollen counts relatively low.

After your workout, it's helpful to shower, wash your clothes, and use a saline spray or rinse to remove any lingering pollen. If you can pinpoint the cause of your symptoms, an antihistamine or other treatment can likely help you get back to your normal life—and your regular workout routine.

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Sources
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