It can be disappointing when you’ve built up momentum with your fitness routine only to see it get derailed by a cold. As tough as it is, the best thing to do is to take a few days off and get back at it when you’re feeling better.
For some, taking multiple days off in a row from training isn’t an option, and that’s actually OK — as long as your symptoms aren’t too serious, of course.
If you have a slightly stuffy nose or a nagging head cold, you can get away with some light exercise. Don’t overdo it, or you might set your recovery schedule back even further.
As a guide, here are 16 tips on how to work out when you’re not feeling well.
Don’t Count on Sweat Equity
It’s a popular school of thought that you can “sweat out your cold” with exercise, but it’s a myth according to Dr. Rick Kellerman of the American Academy of Family Physicians. In fact, intense workouts that increase your endorphin level can weaken your immune system. Instead, he recommends lower levels of exercise and taking in whole foods with lots of water to get rid of the toxins in your body.
Opt For Lower-Key Exercises
When you’re under the weather, you can still work out, but you might need to scale it back a bit. Instead of running hard, go for a walk. Even a light jog can help open up your nasal passages, according to AcaciaTV’s Amanda Young.
Yoga and stretching are great options for relieving aches and pains that might come along with your cold. A stationary bike is also a low-key way to burn calories while you try to get back to 100%.
Qi gong, T’ai chi and swimming are also lower-key exercises to consider when you’re not feeling well, says John Berardi, Ph.D. According to Berardi, brief, vigorous activities won’t cause an immune-suppressing effect; a moderately intense exercise session can help boost immunity; but prolonged, vigorous sessions can actually depress the adaptive immune system.
Go it Alone
Working out can fun in a group setting such as a Zumba class, but you should avoid that atmosphere at all costs, writes Megen DiSanto. You don’t want to get anyone else sick, but also group classes aren’t the most sterile environments, which means you’d be putting your immune system at even more risk.
You don’t have to miss out on all of the fun, however. Throw on some music and have your own Zumba class at home. Just make sure to drink a lot of fluids, and take periodic breaks.
If You’re Going to Run: Take it Slow, Keep it Short
You don’t have to hang up your running shoes if you have a slight cold. Just alter your routine.
If you usually go for longer runs, you can alternate between walking and jogging for 20 to 30 minutes, Dr. Richard Besser, MD, tells DiSanto. If you’re not an experienced runner, though, stay away from the track. Your body is already working overtime to fight off your infection, so overdoing it by running will delay your recovery time.
Keep it Indoors
Work out inside until you’re feeling better — especially on extremely hot or cold days, Besser adds. Cold air doesn’t make you sick, but cold, dry air can restrict your airways.
You can still get a work inside by walking on the treadmill or climbing stairs. If your sinuses are clogged, walking will help you take deep breaths and in turn open up your passageways.
Consider Interval Training
Working out in short sessions can help prevent cold symptoms, boost your immunity and boost your endorphin levels, says Dmitri Tkatchev of Epoch Fitness. Tkatchev recommends at InStyle to alternate between resistance and cardiovascular training. He also recommends the following circuit between one to three times, based on your fitness level:
- Start with a 30-45 minute jog/cycle/brisk walk
- Do jumping jacks for 1 minute (rest 10 to 20 seconds after)
- Do 12 hip bridges (10–20 seconds rest)
- Do 12 pushups (10–20 seconds rest)
- Do 12 squats (10–20 seconds rest)
- Plank for 45-60 seconds (rest for 45–60 seconds before starting the circuit over at the jumping jacks)
Listen to Your Body
A minor cold may not limit your exercise too much, but keep an eye on how you feel once your workout is finished, Kerry Hale suggests. If your symptoms worsen, that’s your sign to scale back your exercising. Either take a break for a few days, or reduce the amount of energy you exert while you’re working out.
If you have to scale back or take a few days off, it isn’t going to affect your performance, according to Edward Laskowski, MD. Just gradually return to your workout routine as you start feeling better. You can always consult with your doctor if you aren’t sure when to get back to your routine.
Put Down the Iron
There’s a good chance your strength will be compromised when you’re sick, which means trying to lift heavy weights could increase your chance of an injury, Health.com’s Amanda MacMillan says.
There’s also a chance that when you strain your muscles to lift weights you could cause yourself sinus pressure or a headache. If you just can’t give up your strength training, use lighter weights and do more reps.
Fuel Up Before Your Workout
Exercising on an empty stomach can do more harm than good, according to British Military Fitness. This is especially true if you work out first thing in the morning because your blood sugar levels are just about as low as they can be when you first wake up.
If you’re sick, you’re already at an energy deficit. Don’t take that level down anymore by skipping breakfast. A small snack of fruit or rice cakes will help get you through your workout.
Fuel Up After You’re Done, Too
As crucial as it is to get some food in your system pre-workout, you need to do the same after you are finished, as well.
Your immune system is compromised when you work out at high levels, explains Harry Pino, Ph.D., which makes how you handle your recovery crucial. You also want to eat sooner than later. As you let more time go by, the body becomes less efficient at putting the nutrients to work, he says. So, eat a mix of protein and carbs, and drink an extra amount of water.
Actually, staying hydrated deserves its own section.
It’s easy to get dehydrated while you’re exercising, and that’s when you’re healthy. And normally, want to break a sweat when you work out because it will release heat from your body and regulate your temperature.
Unfortunately, sweating also means you’re losing fluids, and even a loss of just 2% of your hydration can have a negative effect on your performance. Loss of fluids could lead to overheating, elevated heart rate and extra strain on your circulation. Don’t wait until you are thirsty to drink, and take constant sips throughout your workout.
Former Navy SEAL and certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist Stew Smith recommends drinking three to four quarts of water a day (and eating healthy foods such as vegetables, lean meats and fruits). The constant hydration and healthy eating can help combat the “bug” that’s causing your symptoms.
Be Careful with Medication
Medicine can help you feel better, but some cold medicines can also increase your heart rate, says Christine Jazwinski of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. So, take caution when you combine these medications with exercise. Your cold and physical activity could lead to a shortness of breath. If you have any questions, speak with your doctor.
Look Out for Symptoms Below the Neck
You can get away with moderate exercise if your symptoms are “above the neck” (runny nose, nasal congestion, sneezing, etc.). Once you start feeling it below the neck, however (cough, body aches, chills, fever, etc.), it’s time to cease all activities, says Dr. Bret Jacobs from New York University’s Langone Medical Center.
Working out while feverish (that’s a body temperature of 100.4 Fahrenheit or higher) is a no-no. It’s much easier to get dehydrated with a fever. Fevers can also lower your concentration, leave you feeling less coordinated, and decrease your strength. Any or all of these conditions could increase your chance of getting hurt.
If your cold symptoms are at or above the throat, you can still work out, personal trainer Jay Bonaretti adds. Just keep the exercises less intense than usual.
Come Back Slowly
Once you feel ready to return to you exercise regimen, go slowly. Remember that your first workout since getting sick may not be your best effort, fitness and lifestyle blog Body Project points out.
It may be tempting to put in more effort to get back to where you were fitness-wise, but you’re better off with a less intense workout and giving yourself a little more time between workouts than usual.
Think about starting at 50 percent of your usual workout effort, says Michael Jonesco, MD, Ohio State University sports medicine physician.
Stretch it Out
Add yoga and Pilates to the list of some of the best exercises you can do when you’re sick, writes Carina Wolff of Simplemost. Yoga Six’s Kelly Clifton Turner explains that yoga poses help make room in the lungs, clear out nasal passages and keep the body healthy. Stick to restorative or yin yoga rather than hot yoga, however.
Meanwhile, Pilates puts an emphasis on breathing in and out through the nose, which keeps the whole respiratory system involved, according to certified Pilates instructor Nicole LaBonde.
Take a Bike Ride
If you’re dealing with those “above the neck” symptoms, it’s OK to saddle up for a bike ride, according to Selene Yeager of Bicycling.com. An easy bike ride can get your white blood cells into circulation, get rid of trespassing bacteria and viruses, and possibly open up your nasal passages. For cycling, it’s better to do a straight-on ride rather than intervals.
Note: The ideas and opinions expressed on this blog are for information-purposes only, and do not constitute medical advice.