People in the United States experience an estimated 1 billion colds a year, according to the
From being a nuisance to a leading cause of missing work or school for a few days, the common cold can slow you down. But should it keep you from exercising?
For the most part, it’s best to give yourself a break from feeling the burn for a few days when you aren’t feeling your best.
Keep reading for our guide to exercising (or sitting out an exercise session) with a cold.
According to a 2017 research review, regular exercisers self-reported in surveys that they believed they were less likely to get a cold compared with people who don’t exercise
But the research is mixed.
Some studies from the 1980s connected intense exercise, such as those professional athletes engage in, with an increased incidence of colds, according to a 2015 article in Immunology & Cell Biology.
What we do know is that exercise can impact the body in several ways that may be problematic when you have a cold. These include:
- Hyperthermia. Exercise can cause a person’s temperature to get as high as 103°F. Besides excessive sweating, which can result in dehydration, exertional hyperthermia can cause confusion, nausea, vomiting, fast heartbeat, and potential damage to internal organs, according to research from 2017.
- Dehydration. Even in cold temperatures, exertion can cause increased body temperatures that lead the body to cool itself off via sweat. This can result in dehydration and electrolyte imbalances for longer-term exertion.
- Hypoxia. When a person exercises, they place increased demands on their lungs and heart. This can result in temporary hypoxia or lower oxygen levels, especially if they’re exercising in higher altitudes.
These become more likely the more intense your exercise level is.
Also, exercising in adverse environments, such as high altitudes and extreme temperature highs or lows, can put significant stress on the body’s central nervous system and heart, according to a 2015 research review.
Exercise in these types of environments with a cold can be demanding on your body. But researchers haven’t determined if exercising in these environments actually increases your risk for a cold.
Some studies indicate that exercise may help prevent the common cold.
The researchers found that moderate-intensity exercise, such as brisk walking for about 45 minutes, resulted in a 20 percent increase in immune cells called immunoglobulins.
But the studies they examined were small, so it’s tough to conclusively say that exercise has a protective effect on all people. In addition, researchers acknowledged that the quality of the included studies were poor — more research needs to be done to answer this question.
A 2017 report in ACSM’s Health & Fitness Journal notes that moderate exercise can help the immune system by boosting the amount of neutrophils and natural killer cells. These are two immune cell types that may help to fend off colds.
When you have a cold, you’re more likely to be tired. Your body is using extra energy to fight off the cold virus. This can rob you of some of the energy you usually expend while exercising.
Keep this in mind when you’re working out and maintain realistic expectations for your performance.
If you dial it back a little, the following symptoms may indicate it’s OK to engage in moderate-level exercise.
If you’re on the downward slope of your cold or your symptoms aren’t really slowing you down that much, chances are some exercise may be OK.
Watching your intensity and keeping hydrated can help.
If an earache is one of your cold symptoms, you may be OK to exercise.
Just keep in mind that fluid buildup behind your ear could affect your balance.
You’ll also likely want to avoid activities that introduce more fluid into the ear, such as swimming (or wear earplugs if you do swim).
Part of exercising is maintaining your breath. This is made more difficult by a stuffy nose, but it’s not impossible.
If this is your predominant cold symptom, just watch your effort level and back off if you feel yourself having a hard time keeping up with your breathing.
You can push yourself more when your cold is behind you.
Sore throats are a nuisance, but they won’t usually keep you from engaging in some level of exercise.
Keep yourself hydrated and sip on cool liquids frequently to help soothe your sore throat.
There are some symptoms that may indicate it’s better to sit out a workout for two primary reasons:
- Your performance is likely affected.
- You may be putting others at risk if you exercise in a community environment, like a gym or on a team.
Most colds don’t cause a fever, according to the
But a cold can cause a low-grade fever (usually less than 100°F) as your body elevates its temperature to try and kill the virus.
Since your body temperature is already higher when you have a fever, raising it through exercise isn’t a great idea. Hold off on exercising until you are fever-free.
Exercising with a wet cough will likely result in more stops and starts so you can cough up the extra mucus.
You’re also putting extra strain on your lungs and heart, which could increase your risk for heart-related complications.
As a result, exercise is best skipped at this point.
For this reason, excessive training or repeated exercise bouts over the course of the day aren’t a good idea when you have a cold (even a mild one).
Instead, try to focus on moderate exercise efforts that won’t make you to lose your training gains but also won’t worsen your symptoms.
Here are some examples:
- engage in low-impact aerobic exercise
- lift weights
- use lower-impact exercise equipment, such as an elliptical machine or bicycle
Reduce your exercise intensity and duration until you start to feel better.
Because colds and stuffiness in your ears and nose can affect your balance, be careful care performing exercises that require balance or upside-down positions, such as yoga.
The good news is that colds are usually self-limiting. They will typically go away within a few days, and you can get back to exercising.
That means self-care while you have the cold can help you recover. Examples include:
- getting plenty of rest
- drinking fluids to avoid becoming dehydrated
- washing your hands frequently to avoid getting or transmitting other illnesses
- taking medications that may help reduce your symptoms, such as over-the-counter pain relievers for headache or discomfort
Taking the time to work yourself back to your previous exercise schedule and increasing your effort over the course of a few days may help.
In each condition’s earliest stages, sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference. Here’s a quick guide that may help you.
When it’s the flu
- You’ll usually have a fever.
- Your symptoms will come on quickly.
- You’ll have body aches, fatigue, and nausea/vomiting.
- You can sometimes experience a stuffy nose or sneezing.
- You can sometimes have a sore throat.
Generally speaking, the flu usually causes more intense symptoms than a cold. Because the flu can have greater complications (and you usually feel much worse anyway), it’s best to avoid working out when you have the flu.
Ideally, your cold symptoms will get better in less than a week.
If symptoms start to worsen, it may be time to talk with your doctor. Look out for symptoms like:
- a high fever
- coughing that’s hard to control
- increasing amounts of mucus
- trouble breathing
- inability to keep food or fluids down
Colds can sometimes lead to bacterial infections, such as sinus or ear infections.
Extended duration of illness and the presence of a fever can also indicate you’re experiencing more than a cold.
Talk with a doctor to determine if you may need antibiotics to help treat your symptoms.
When your cold symptoms are from the neck up, you may be OK to engage in moderate exercise. Keep in mind that you may need to limit the duration or intensity.
Symptoms from the neck down can indicate it’s best to wait until you’re feeling better.
If at any time you start to feel worse or your cold isn’t going away, it may be time to talk with your doctor.