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When cold and flu season hits, many people wonder if they should stick to their exercise routine or take the day off. Dealing with a stuffy nose, headache, or cough can certainly make the idea of staying in bed appealing, but is that best for your body? The answer depends on the symptoms you're experiencing and the type of exercise you had planned. However, certain guidelines can help you decide whether or not to hit the gym when you're feeling under the weather.

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Listen to Your Body

Most doctors and exercise professionals recommend following the neck rule when deciding whether to work out while sick. The neck rule states that if symptoms are limited to above the neck, exercise is fair game. So, a stuffy nose, headache, or sore throat may not rule out a workout. If symptoms are below the neck, including coughing, joint aches, tight chest, and an upset stomach, it is best to take it easy.

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When the Neck Rule Does Not Apply

There are some instances where above-the-neck symptoms indicate you should not exercise. People experiencing dizziness should avoid even moderate exertion. Likewise, it is good to stay home if a blocked nose is impacting your ability to breathe. A fever is a definite indication that you should not exercise, so people with flu symptoms should check their temperature before heading to the gym. Anyone with a medical condition should discuss their workout routine with their doctor to determine a safe way to exercise.

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Avoid Passing Germs Around

Going to the gym while sick may also impact the health of other people. The cold virus is easily transmitted to someone using the same equipment as a sick gym goer. For people with a compromised immune system, the flu virus is more concerning; it is highly contagious and can be dangerous. For this reason, it may be best to stay away from the gym while potentially contagious.

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Choosing an Exercise

If you choose to work out while sick, it can be helpful to try different routines. Low-intensity exercises like walking are better than high-intensity workouts. Shorter workouts can also help, and do not be afraid to stop early if exercising makes you feel worse. People who do strength training should choose lighter weights than normal, as sickness can lead to lethargy and tiredness, which brings a greater risk of injury when weightlifting.

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Going Back to the Gym

If you choose to skip the gym, the next step is deciding when to restart your routine. One timeline recommends waiting until your symptoms have been gone for two days, although others suggest you can start to increase intensity as your symptoms wane. Either way, ease back into your routine with lighter intensity activities. Make sure your lungs are back to normal before restarting marathon training or heavy lifting.

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How Exercise Impacts Healing

The idea of sweating out a cold or flu is an old wives' tale, but exercise does make some people feel better. This is largely due to post-workout endorphins, although exercise can temporarily clear a congested nose, too. In general, exercise will slow your recovery from a cold or flu because exercise burns energy that you could be using to fight the infection. That being said, calming exercises such as light stretching can help ease stress, which does boost your body's ability to heal.

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Exercise Can Help

On the other hand, exercise can help alleviate the symptoms and severity of some conditions. Number one is constipation; moving around can help your digestive system start moving as well. Women with menstrual cramps may want to stay in bed with chocolate, but cardio such as running or cycling suppresses the production of prostaglandins, the chemicals that cause cramps. People who are mentally exhausted should also hit the gym because exercise decreases stress and may help you clear your mind.

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Can Exercise Make You Sick?

Recent research in the Journal of Applied Physiology suggests that intense exercise may lead to a window of weaker immunity. Scientists do not fully understand how this works, and it is possible that not all immune function is suppressed. Another study showed that cycling hard for two hours boosted some immune functions and weakened others. However, regular moderate exercise, adequate sleep, eating well, and reducing stress can help to boost your immune system and protect your health.

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What About Injuries?

Most people find ways to continue exercising while injured. The possibilities are limited by the type of injury, but your doctor or physiotherapist can provide options to keep you active as you heal. Personal trainers and gym instructors can show you how to adapt exercises so that they will not aggravate your injury. Taking the time to heal and rehabilitate can help you get back to your regular routine as soon as possible.

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Best Exercises for Sick Days

Gentle exercise is the recommended option for people who are sick. Walking is a popular choice as it is easy and does not require special equipment. Light cycling on a stationary bike is another good sick day work out and as an added bonus, it can be done inside in winter, keeping you safe from the cold air that can aggravate an illness. Many professionals recommend yoga; the gentle stretching also helps calm the mind, and decreasing stress can increase immune function.

Yoga for gentle exercise FatCamera / Getty Images

Disclaimer

This site offers information designed for educational purposes only. You should not rely on any information on this site as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, treatment, or as a substitute for, professional counseling care, advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you have any concerns or questions about your health, you should always consult with a physician or other healthcare professional.