Is It Healthy to Exercise While Sick?

As a man ties his gym shoes, he wonders if it's healthy to exercise while sick.

Contributed by Nora Stasio

Everyone knows that exercise is good for you. Studies have shown that those exercising regularly basis tend to have stronger immune systems than those who do not. But what if you are one of those people that exercises religiously and you fall ill? Is it healthy to exercise while sick? Might a round of rigorous activity be helpful or detrimental to your recovery?


For the most part, research indicates you should not exercise while sick. But there are a few interesting exceptions. Whether or not you should gear up for a workout while ill depends on two important factors:

  1. How sick you are
  2. What type of exercise you plan to do

When you’re doing any kind of intense workout, the kind where your heart rate goes up, you’re really grunting and sweating, and you feel like collapsing after you’re done, you are actually causing stress to your body. But it can be thought of as a good kind of stress. Pushing your body to its limit in a safe way can build strength, agility, and endurance. When you’re healthy and feeling good, your immune system is able to handle that stress appropriately, so that in the end, your body benefits from the workout.


When you’re sick, however, your body is already under stress and your immune system is preoccupied with antibodies, mucosal membranes and the like. To force this stressed-out body to endure a serious gym session would be a mistake. Your immune system may not be able to handle the added stress of a highly rigorous workout. Attempting to “push through” your sickness can ultimately end up prolonging it. What your body needs is rest.


Then again, for something mild, like a cold, you may not need to worry as much. If you’re experiencing a slight sinus headache, runny nose, or sore throat (symptoms from the neck up), it’s most likely okay to workout, though maybe not as intensely as usual. Conversely, if you’re coughing, having some chest congestion, or stomach cramps (symptoms from the neck down), you should probably avoid the gym until you feel better. A respiratory illness can become very serious if not well attended to. A build-up of phlegm or an inflamed lung can make it difficult to take more than a shallow breath. You don’t want to further deprive your body of oxygen with an intense run or too much cardio. And the last thing you probably want to do at the gym is throw up, so be mindful of a nauseous belly.


So if you’ve got a mild cold with “neck up” symptoms and don’t want to miss out on your daily exercise, try an activity that makes your body feel refreshed and energized afterward, rather than beat-down and burnt-out. You can go for a walk, take a leisurely bike ride, do a little yoga, or some gardening. Healthy activities like these may even be able to give you the immune boost you need to get over that mild cold, as long as you don’t overdo it. When you feel like you want to exercise while sick, do whatever feels comfortable and don’t push yourself past that point. Your immune system will thank you for it.


If you have a chronic or long-term illness, the same rules should probably apply to you. HOWEVER, it’s very important that you speak to your doctor first about whether or not you should exercise while sick. You may think you’re feeling strong enough to go for a walk at first, but who knows how you’ll feel towards the end of it. Then there’s the case where some patients who have a compromised immune system may want to avoid going outside, if they can, in lieu of germs. It’s always best to talk to your doctor in these circumstances.