Engaging in regular exercise is an excellent way to keep your body healthy.
In fact, working out has been shown to decrease your risk of chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease, help keep your weight in check, and boost your immune system (
While there’s no doubt that exercise plays an important role in health, many people wonder whether working out while sick will help or hinder their recovery.
However, the answer isn’t black and white.
This article explains why sometimes it’s OK to work out when you’re sick, while other times it’s best to stay home and rest.
A speedy recovery is always the goal when you are sick, but it can be hard to know when it’s OK to power through with your normal gym routine and when it’s best to take a few days off.
Exercise is a healthy habit, and it’s normal to want to continue working out, even when you’re feeling under the weather.
This can be perfectly fine in certain situations but also detrimental if you’re experiencing certain symptoms.
Many experts use the “above the neck” rule when advising people on whether to continue working out while sick.
According to this theory, if you’re only experiencing symptoms that are above your neck, such as a stuffy nose, sneezing, or an earache, you’re probably OK to engage in exercise at mild intensity for a shorter period, but only if you feel up to it (
On the other hand, if you’re experiencing symptoms below your neck, such as nausea, body aches, fever, diarrhea, a productive cough, or chest congestion, you may want to skip your workout until you feel better.
A productive cough is one in which you’re coughing up phlegm.
Some experts use the “above the neck” rule to determine whether working out while sick is safe. Exercise is most likely safe when your symptoms are located from the neck up.
Working out with the following symptoms is most likely safe, but always check with your doctor if you’re unsure.
A mild cold is a viral infection of the nose and throat.
Though symptoms vary from person to person, most people who have a cold experience sneezing, a stuffy nose, a headache, and a mild cough (
Given current events, if you have a mild cold and the energy to work out, the best solution is to take a light walk outside or at home rather than engage in vigorous exercise. With the added possibility of developing COVID-19, it’s even more important to maintain social distancing.
If you feel that you lack the energy to get through your normal routine, consider reducing the intensity of your workout or shortening its duration.
While it’s generally OK to exercise with a mild cold, keep in mind that you might spread germs to others and cause them to become ill.
Practicing proper hygiene is a great way to prevent spreading your cold to others. Wash your hands frequently and cover your mouth when you sneeze or cough.
An earache is a sharp, dull, or burning pain that can be located in one or both ears.
Though ear pain in children is commonly caused by infection, earache in adults is more commonly caused by pain occurring in another area, such as the throat. This is an example of referred pain (
Ear pain can be caused by a sinus infection, a sore throat, a tooth infection, or changes in pressure.
Certain types of ear infections can throw you off balance and cause a fever and other symptoms that make working out unsafe. Make sure you don’t have one of these ear infections before beginning exercise (9).
However, most earaches can just be uncomfortable and cause a feeling of fullness or pressure in the head.
Though exercise is likely safe when you have an earache, try to avoid exercises that put pressure on the sinus region. Stick to light walking. Something as simple as bending over can be very uncomfortable with a sinus infection.
Having a stuffy nose can be frustrating and uncomfortable.
If it’s associated with a fever or other symptoms like a productive cough or chest congestion, you should consider taking some time off from working out.
However, it’s OK to work out if you’re only experiencing some nasal congestion.
In fact, getting some exercise may help open up your nasal passages, helping you breathe better (10).
Ultimately, listening to your body to determine whether you feel well enough to exercise with a stuffy nose is the best bet.
Modifying your workout to accommodate your energy level is another option.
Going for brisk walks or bike rides are great ways to stay active even when you aren’t feeling up to your usual routine.
Because of the COVID pandemic, you shouldn’t be going to a gym if you’re sick. If your nose is really stuffy, don’t try anything more strenuous than very light exercise or walking. Pay attention to your breathing and what you feel you can handle.
Mild sore throat
A sore throat is usually caused by a viral infection like the common cold or flu (11).
In certain situations, such as when your sore throat is associated with a fever, productive cough, or difficulty swallowing, you should put exercise on hold until a doctor tells you it’s OK to resume your workouts.
However, if you’re experiencing a mild sore throat caused by something like a common cold or allergies, working out is likely safe.
If you’re experiencing other symptoms that are often associated with a common cold, such as fatigue and congestion, consider reducing the intensity of your normal exercise routine.
Reducing the duration of your workout is another way to modify activity when you feel well enough to work out but don’t have your usual stamina.
Staying hydrated with cool water is a great way to soothe a sore throat during exercise so you can add activity into your day.
It’s most likely OK to work out when you are experiencing a mild cold, earache, stuffy nose, or sore throat, as long as you aren’t experiencing more serious symptoms.
While exercising is generally harmless when you have a mild cold or earache, working out when you are experiencing any of the following symptoms is not recommended.
When you have a fever, your body temperature rises above its normal range, which hovers around 98.6°F (37°C). A fever can be caused by many things, but it’s most commonly triggered by a bacterial or viral infection (
Fevers can cause unpleasant symptoms like weakness, dehydration, muscle aches, and a loss of appetite.
Working out while you’re feverish increases the risk of dehydration and can make a fever worse.
Additionally, having a fever decreases muscle strength and endurance and impairs precision and coordination, increasing the risk of injury (
For these reasons, it’s best to skip the gym when you have a fever.
Productive or frequent cough
An occasional cough is a normal response to irritants or fluids in the body’s airways, and it helps keep the body healthy.
However, more frequent episodes of coughing can be a symptom of a respiratory infection like a cold, the flu, or even pneumonia.
While a cough associated with a tickle in the throat isn’t a reason to skip the gym, a more persistent cough can be a sign you need to rest.
Although a dry, sporadic cough may not impair your ability to perform certain exercises, a frequent, productive cough is reason to skip a workout.
A persistent cough can make it difficult to take a deep breath, particularly when your heart rate rises during exercise. This makes you more likely to become short of breath and fatigued.
A productive cough that brings up phlegm or sputum may be a sign of infection or another medical condition that requires rest and should be treated by a doctor (15).
Furthermore, coughing is one of the main ways viruses like the flu and SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19, are spread.
Avoid going to the gym when you have a cough, as you’re putting fellow gym-goers at risk of being exposed to the germs that caused your illness. Also, if your cough is occurring during exercise, it may be a sign of asthma. See a doctor if this persists.
Illnesses that affect the digestive system, such as the stomach flu, can cause serious symptoms that make working out off-limits.
Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, fever, stomach cramping, and decreased appetite are all common symptoms associated with stomach bugs.
Diarrhea and vomiting put you at risk of dehydration, which physical activity worsens (
Feeling weak is common when you have a stomach ailment, increasing the chance of injury during a workout.
What’s more, many stomach illnesses like the stomach flu are highly contagious and can be easily spread to others (17).
If you’re feeling restless during a stomach illness, light stretching or yoga at home are the safest options.
Influenza is a contagious illness that affects the respiratory system.
The flu causes symptoms like fever, chills, sore throat, body aches, fatigue, headache, cough, and congestion.
The flu can be mild or severe, depending on the level of infection, and it may even cause death in serious cases (
Although not every person who gets the flu will experience a fever, those who do are at an increased risk of dehydration, making working out a bad idea.
Though the majority of people recover from the flu in less than 2 weeks, choosing to engage in intense workouts while sick may prolong the flu and delay your recovery.
Though it’s a debated topic, some researchers believe engaging in higher intensity activity like running or a spin class temporarily suppresses the body’s immune response (
Plus, the flu is a highly contagious virus that’s spread primarily through tiny droplets that people with the flu release into the air when they talk, cough, or sneeze.
If you’re diagnosed with the flu, it’s best to take it easy and avoid exercise while you’re experiencing symptoms.
If you’re experiencing symptoms like a fever, vomiting, diarrhea, or a productive cough, taking time off from the gym may be the best option for both your own recovery and the safety of others.
Many people are anxious to get back to the gym after recovering from an illness — and for good reason.
Regular exercise can reduce your risk of becoming sick in the first place by boosting your immune system (
However, it’s important to let your body completely recover from an illness before returning to your exercise routine, and you shouldn’t stress even if you’re unable to work out for an extended period of time.
While some people worry that a few days off from the gym will set them back and cause a loss of muscle and strength, that’s not the case.
Many studies show that for most people, muscle loss and strength start to decline around the 5-day mark (22,
As symptoms subside, gradually begin introducing more physical activity into your day, being careful not to overdo it.
On your first day back to the gym, begin with a low intensity, shorter workout, and be sure to hydrate with water while exercising.
Remember, your body may be feeling weak, especially if you’re recovering from a stomach illness or the flu, and it’s important to pay attention to how you’re feeling.
If you’re questioning whether you can safely work out while recovering from being sick, ask your doctor for advice.
Additionally, while you may be feeling better, keep in mind that you might still be able to spread your illness to others. Adults can infect others with the flu up to 7 days after first experiencing flu symptoms (
Although getting back to the gym after an illness is beneficial for your overall health, it’s important to listen to your body and doctor when deciding whether you’re well enough for more intense activity.
Waiting until your symptoms completely subside before gradually getting back into your workout routine is a safe way to return to exercise after an illness.
When experiencing symptoms like diarrhea, vomiting, weakness, a fever, or a productive cough, it’s best to rest your body and take some time off from the gym to recover.
However, if you caught a mild cold or are experiencing some nasal congestion, there’s no need to throw in the towel on your workout, though it’s good sense to stay away from indoor public spaces like gyms.
Yet, it’s important to confine your workouts to home during this time due to the risk of spreading your illness to others.
It’s not always possible to know for sure whether you’re experiencing a cold or something more serious. It’s better to err on the side of caution when you’re not feeling up to par.
If you’re feeling well enough to work out but lack your usual energy, reducing the intensity or length of your workout is a great way to stay active.
That said, to stay healthy and safe when you’re sick, it’s always best to listen to your body and follow your doctor’s advice.