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Should I train when I am sick?

22 March 2012 Andrew Verdon

Smiling faces of happy sailors. To be out on the water you need to look after your body

"Smiling faces of happy sailors. To be out on the water you need to look after your body"

Photo by:
Kylie Wilson,

A common question that I hear from people is, 'Can I exercise when sick? Is it bad or will it help me get better sooner?'

As words, sickness or illness can cover many types of ailments or conditions, so my focus here will be on common colds and flus as we enter the 'flu season', which is generally considered to be from May to the end of winter. The medical community broadly class these colds and flus as Upper Respiratory Tract Infections, or URTI.

If you have a more serious illness, you should definitely not exercise and focus on recuperation. When illness debilitates you, the body needs to use it strength and resources to fight off infection and always seek clearance from your doctor before recommencing your exercise program.

If the ailment is less serious (i.e. a cold or flu), which means the symptoms and effects are unpleasant but not debilitating, then you may do some exercise. There is not a great deal of research on this topic and every person and virus can be different, but a common 'rule of thumb' in general use, is the neck check - and that is:

Above neck symptoms only - free to exercise (use the guidelines below) these symptoms include runny nose, sneezing, sore throats, and mild headaches.

If below neck symptoms are present - swollen glands, fever, chest cough, muscle and joint aches all on the trunk and limbs, then it's best not to exercise.

In general, the research says that light exercise with cold can make you feel better and not do any extra damage. The thinking here, is that light exercise clears airways, enhances circulation and this can speed the healing process via the delivery of good nutrients that are contained in your blood stream. There is every chance it may elevate your mood, as well.

Moderate exercise can boost immune system, and this can be a benefit in both the immediate and longer term.

So what is the key?

Back off the intensity, but be active (walking may be a good option) and there may be physical benefits, but keep the intensity low to keep the heart rate down (as a guide, it should be under 120bpm).

Maintaining immune health from the Exercise Immunology Review.

EIR is the official publication and Position Statement of the International Society of Exercise and Immunology

Practical guidelines for you to prevent infections:

  • Keep vaccine updated
  • Minimise contact with sick people
  • Keep a distance in public from people sneezing, coughing or with a runny nose
  • Wash your hands regularly
  • Limit hand to mouth contact if you feel the onset of symptoms
  • Do not share drink bottles, cups or towels, especially bathroom hand towels
  • Protect your airway from direct exposure to very cold dry air, flights or morning air
  • Avoid getting cold or wet after exercise
  • Get at least 7 hours sleep nightly
  • Keep life stress to a minimum

Guidelines for exercising when sick:

  • If your symptoms are above the neck, you are ok to train
  • Drop the intensity and exercise at a low to moderate level (i.e. Heart Rate below 120bpm)
  • Drink plenty of fluids
  • Keep from getting wet whilst exercising and avoid the rain and swimming
  • Minimise other stress in your life
  • If symptoms do not get any worse, then light exercise may be continued until you feel better
  • When symptoms have passed you may gradually lift the intensity (aim to keep HR under 150pm)

If symptoms (fever, headaches, stiffness/soreness and/or excessive fatigue) were severe and you ceased training for a period:

  • Wait one to two days before recommencing exercise after symptoms have cleared
  • If you had four days sick, then take four days to return to normal exercise. Step it up gradually over the number of days you were laid up

Andrew Verdon

Always happy!

"Always happy!"

Photo by:
Kylie Wilson,


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