Locations:
Search IconSearch

Should You Really Work Out When You’re Sick?

If your symptoms are above the neck, go for it! Below the neck, it’s best to rest

Person with sore throat drinking warm beverage before exercising.

We’ve all been there. Whether you’re this close to hitting a seven-minute mile, you’re one week into a brand-new Zumba® class or you just started making power walks after lunch your thing, that bug you woke up with couldn’t have come at a worse time.

Advertisement

Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy

You don’t want to lose your momentum, especially if you’re not that sick. But you also don’t want to make yourself feel any worse than you already do. And what if you’re contagious?

Can you work out while you’re sick?

If you’re debating between hitting the gym or hitting the medicine cabinet, sports health physician Vikas Patel, DO, says it may be time to conduct a “neck check.”

When you can work out vs. when you can’t

A “neck check” isn’t exactly what it sounds like, but it’s close. If your symptoms are above the neck ― sore throatcoughingsneezing or runny nose ― it’s typically OK to still work out. But if your symptoms are below the neck ― chest congestion or hacking cough, muscle aches, fatigue or upset stomach ― it’s a good idea to rest.

If you pass the neck check and want to try to power through a workout, Dr. Patel suggests cutting your effort by about 50%. Walk instead of run. Do one set instead of five. Or try a low-impact activity like yoga.

Exceptions to every rule

While generally helpful, the neck check isn’t foolproof.

If you have a fever, you 100% shouldn’t be exercising. And if you have asthma or a heart condition, Dr. Patel recommends speaking with your physician before exercising.

Listen to your body

While the neck check might suggest it’s OK to get your blood pumping, you shouldn’t feel obligated to power through a workout if you’re not feeling well.

“The general rule of thumb is to listen to your body,” Dr. Patel says. “Taking a few days off won’t impact your fitness level.”

In fact — as any top athlete with tell you — good exercise routines build in opportunities to rest and recover.

Should certain exercises always be off the table when you’re ill?

There’s no hard and fast rule about what you can and can’t do when you’re sick, but common sense tells us that you should:

  • Stay out of the pool if you’ve GI issues. If you have diarrhea, stay far away from the pool. You could contaminate the water with cryptosporidium. The U.S. CDC recommends avoiding the water until you’ve gone a full two weeks without diarrhea.
  • Avoid team sports, group activities and gym visits. You don’t want to make other people sick.
  • Reduce exercise intensity. Avoid activities that are likely to exhaust and dehydrate you. Regardless of what you’re doing, be sure to reduce the amount of effort you’re putting in by about 50%. Your body needs the other 50% to fight off whatever’s making you sick.
  • Deprioritize endurance. In addition to reducing the intensity of your workout, make sure you’re reducing the duration, too. A workout doesn’t have to be long to be beneficial.
  • Try to sweat less. You don’t want to get dehydrated, so skip the hot yoga — or anything else that’s likely to turn you into a puddle.

Hydration is key

Exercise may be optional when you’re sick, but making sure you drink enough water isn’t.

Advertisement

According to Dr. Patel, it’s even more important to focus on hydration when you aren’t feeling well. “Most people who felt like working out, who had prolonged their sickness, were actually feeling the effects of dehydration,” he notes.

Are you putting others at risk?

When it comes to working out while sick, it’s important to be mindful of other people’s safety — not just your own. That means avoiding gyms, exercise classes and team sports.

When is it safe to go back to the gym?

Whether you have the flu, COVID-19, or a run-of-the-mill cold, it’s important to remember that you could be contagious longer than you realize. Follow the guidelines below for when it’s safe to return to the gym — and when in doubt, work out at home.

The flu

If you have the flu, you were already contagious before your symptoms showed up. You’ll be most contagious during the first three or four days thereafter.

You can spread the flu for up to a week after your symptoms start. Children and adults with weakened immune systems may be contagious even longer.

The common cold

The common cold can be even more infectious than the flu. Most people are contagious one to three days before first experiencing symptoms, and can stay that way for up to two weeks.

Your best bet is to wait at least 72 hours after your symptoms have resolved to return to the gym.

Is exercise good for a cold?

You’ve probably heard that you can “sweat out” a cold. But that’s not true.

Advertisement

While exercise is good for your immune system, that’s a cumulative effect over time. Put differently, consistent exercise may reduce the number of colds you get in general, but once you’re sick, your body’s immune response is what it is.

Some people may feel better if they do some light exercise with a cold, but it can also make your symptoms worse if you aren’t careful.

COVID-19

If you have COVID-19, the CDC recommends isolating for at least five days after the day you test positive and taking precautions like indoor masking for at least 11 days. To ensure the safety of your workout buddies, though, it’s best to wait until you’ve had two negative tests in a row, 48 hours apart, before hitting the gym.

When you do go back

When the time comes for you to return to the gym, your team or your favorite exercise class, keep in mind that there are many ways you can reduce the risk you pose to others, from wearing a mask and washing your hands, to bringing your own equipment with you and sanitizing the surfaces you touch.

To reduce your risk, keep listening to your body. If you don’t feel like you have the energy or strength for all those burpees, try jumping jacks instead. If you need to sit out the climbing portion of your cycling class, sit it out. And if you need to skip your workout and take a nap instead, don’t hesitate.

And if — after reading this — you have any lingering doubts about the wisdom of returning to your regularly scheduled exercise routine, speak with a doctor.

Advertisement

Learn more about our editorial process.

Related Articles

Older person smiling, taking in the outdoors
June 13, 2024/Mental Health
Put Intention Behind Your Walking Meditation

While walking, be mindful of your body, your mind, your place in the world and all five of your senses as you pave a path forward, one step at a time

Person in a deep squat
June 13, 2024/Exercise & Fitness
Here’s the Right Way To Do a Squat

Squat smart with proper technique, including a neutral spine, wide knees and an engaged core

People in gym doing cool down stretches
June 10, 2024/Exercise & Fitness
Why You Shouldn’t Skip Cool Down Exercises

This important step gives your body time to return to its resting state while reducing muscle cramps, dizziness and injury

Healthcare provider placing bandaid on upper arm after a shot
June 5, 2024/Infectious Disease
Are You Up to Date on Your COVID-19 Vaccines?

Updated vaccinations are recommended to better protect against the evolving virus

Person walking dog and person running in a park, with person sitting on a bench
June 5, 2024/Exercise & Fitness
Walking vs. Running: Which Is Better for You?

The short answer? The best exercise is the one you’ll actually do

Person coughing into a tissue by window during sunny, summer day
June 4, 2024/Primary Care
Summer Sniffles: Winter Isn’t the Only Time You Can Catch a Cold

Enteroviruses are often to blame for summer colds, leading to a runny nose, sore throat and digestive symptoms

Person blowing nose, surrounded by medicines and home remedies
May 30, 2024/Primary Care
Why Do I Keep Getting Sick?

Stress and unhealthy habits can lead to more colds, but taking some precautions may help you stay well

Red inflammation on an upper arm
May 30, 2024/Infectious Disease
Should You Be Worried About COVID Arm?

Redness, swelling, itching and rash can happen when your body’s immune system reacts to the vaccine injection

Trending Topics

Female and friend jogging outside
How To Increase Your Metabolism for Weight Loss

Focus on your body’s metabolic set point by eating healthy foods, making exercise a part of your routine and reducing stress

stovetop with stainless steel cookware and glassware
5 Ways Forever Chemicals (PFAS) May Affect Your Health

PFAS chemicals may make life easier — but they aren’t always so easy on the human body

jar of rice water and brush, with rice scattered around table
Could Rice Water Be the Secret To Healthier Hair?

While there’s little risk in trying this hair care treatment, there isn’t much science to back up the claims

Ad