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Exercising with the Common Cold: Yay or Nay?

It is here again. That time of the year that the seasonal allergies are in full force and the “common-cold” starts making its way around. We all try our best to avoid these like the plague, but usually, we fail and end up with even a little taste of the sickness that is going around.

Not only does it just make you feel terrible overall, it begins to affect your daily schedule, like work and exercising. Once we get into a routine, it is hard to break no matter how sick we are feeling. Very few people tend to take time off of work because of the sniffles or a dry cough, but should we be taking time away from the gym when these symptoms arise? Today we will be clearing up if in fact, you should exercise while feeling a little under the weather, or if you should just take the time to rest and recover.

common cold bacteria

The body actually has two immune systems, the innate and the adaptive. The innate immune system is our first line of defense. This includes the physical barriers such as our skin, nasal passages, and even body hair. Once a pathogen has entered the body, defense mechanisms kick in, such as mucous, bile, secretions and tears to try and fight the invader. Then we have the general immune responses that bring immune cells to the site of infection to increase blood flow to the area. All of these responses are activated by the presence of antigens in our body.

The adaptive immune system, or acquired immune system, is the “planner” immune system. The adaptive system creates a memory mount of sickness. So whenever you are around someone who is sick or are exposed to something even walking outside, the adaptive system begins to work to memorize what exactly you were exposed to and how it is going to fight it when it does enter the body. Therefore, over time, the body can begin to fight off familiar pathogens a lot faster than it could when it was first introduced to it. For instance, kids tend to get sick more often than adults. This is because they have not been exposed to these triggers for as long, and their immune system is not as strong as adults. The adaptive system uses two types of lymphocytes to fight off infection (B Cells and T Cells). These cells both mature and function differently in the body to fight off whatever pathogen we pick up.  Even over time, and overexposure, the adaptive immune system is still a much slower response than the innate system because the innate system is ready to fight at any moment whereas the adaptive system needs time to recognize it and then trigger a response.

walking outside

This brings us back around to whether or not we should be working out when we are sick. There are two different types of working out. There is a low intensity, get the body moving workout, and then there is a high intensity, give it all you got and exhaust yourself workout.  Whenever we are striving for a fitness goal, we are usually doing high-intensity workouts to try and get us to that goal as quickly as possible, walking out of the gym with zero gas left in the tank. Well, when we are healthy the body can adapt a lot quicker to this high-intensity stress we are putting the body under. But when our immune system is already compromised from being sick, we could just be running it down even more, and causing the sickness and symptoms to be dragged out. When we do light intensity workouts such as a walk or bike ride, we are getting our heart pumping and sweat flowing which could actually “sweat out” the sickness and lessen the symptoms because we are not fully exhausting our immune system but rather igniting it a little more.

Textbook guidelines to exercising and illness:

  •     Day 1 of illness

Only low-intensity exercise with symptoms like a sore throat, coughing, runny nose or congestion.

No exercise at all when experiencing muscle/joint pain, headache, fever, diarrhea or vomiting.

  •      Day 2 of illness

If body temp >100 F, or increased coughing, diarrhea, vomitingdo not exercise.

If no fever or worsening of “above the neck” symptoms: light exercise (heart rate <120bpm) for 30-45 minutes by yourself indoors or outdoors.

  •      Day 3 of illness

If fever and symptoms still present, consult a doctor.

If no fever or worsening of initial symptoms moderate exercise (heart rate <150bpm) for 45-60 minutes by yourself or outdoors.

  •      Day 4 of illness

If no symptom relief, no exercise and go to a doctor.

If fever or other symptoms improved, wait 24 hours then return to exercise.

flu symptoms

Overall, whether you should exercise while sick or rest is totally up to the individual. Let your symptoms be your guide. If you feel good enough to exercise and you think it would benefit you, then all the power to you do to so. If you are completely drained and exhausted and think exercise would just drag you down more, take some time to fully recover. Researchers say that “above the neck” symptoms are fine to exercise, and moderate intensity is best. Symptoms below the neck you should rest and not partake in any physical activity. The number of days you are sick should indicate the number of days you ease back into exercise as well. So if you are ill for 3 days, take 3 days to slowly ease yourself back into an exercise routine, so you don’t shock your system and get sick again. So if the weather or pressure changes have you feeling a cold coming on, just be smart about your exercising and don’t try to work-out with the intensity you do when you are feeling healthy!


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