Should you exercise while sick? Here’s how to navigate fitness when you’re unwell

With longevity the intention of exercise, recent years have prompted the question — should you be exercising if you’re sick? In search of a straightforward answer, Tessa Patrick discovers the complexities of fitness along the way.

Sometimes gentle exercise just makes you feel good. Circulating endorphins are always assured to lift any mood, and a healthy intake of oxygen has never been known to do harm — as long as the body isn’t exerted any more than it needs to be. Even if you’re not exercising for your body, it’s a feel-good habit for the mind. But should we be sacrificing that when we’re sick?

Many experts suggest that fitness doesn’t have to be pushed to the wayside when we’re battling a cold. It’s more about making gentle adjustments to ensure recovery isn’t impaired, and while the answer will differ in every individual, most professionals agree that the best principle is this: Exercising while sick is fine for symptoms above the neck, but as soon as you’re beginning to feel the impacts of the illness within your body, it’s time to change up your game plan. If you’re just feeling the effects of a head cold; the nose sniffles and headaches, it is considered fine (and actually even healthy) to move your body.

But if these symptoms are extending below the neck, like aches and chills, an upset stomach or chest congestion (this includes a phlegmy cough), most practitioners would encourage you to take the time to rest until symptoms have subsided. If you try to maintain your normal routine (with the same intensity and frequency) when you have more than a simple cold, you put yourself at risk of further injury and more serious illness.

As for the Covid pandemic that prompted this awakened social commentary; any strenuous exercise should be avoided during infection. Exerting strained lungs only burdens you further, potentially triggering what is known as ‘long Covid’. But our understanding of what long Covid actually is needs some more consideration. This phenomenon isn’t akin to a switch that’s suddenly flipped the second we don our activewear. Instead, it should be used as a gauge for just how much we move our bodies, and just how far we push them. 

Should you exercise while sick?

With Covid, a gentle walk around the block, and even a light stretching yoga sequence will probably do you the world of good, even in the height of illness. But that doesn’t mean the second you test negative you should be enlisting for the next half marathon. Take exercise gently, and ease yourself back into it. Allow your walks to return to runs over a matter of weeks, not days, and lay off the intense, HIIT-style workouts until you’re really ready to go back. It is an exercise in patience, but the debilitating effects of going too hard too soon are simply never worth it.

With all other illnesses, if you self-triage, and decide that exercise is essential for the day, experts suggest starting by reducing the intensity of your workout. Long-distance runners should swap that out for a lengthy ‘hot girl walk‘ instead. For those who like to lift weights, or lean into a rigorous HIIT workout, try an at-home Pilates session. Slower paced yoga classes like hatha and yin can feel totally nourishing at this time too. And of course, if you’re experiencing any kind of contagious symptoms, exercise while sick is best done at home or alone.

Throughout this time, extra attention should be paid to recovery too — prioritising those habits that ensure your body returns to its natural state of being. Ensure you take time to stretch, and then take some longer to get into those areas that may be stiff from a day in bed. Make sure you stay hydrated, with an ample amount of water intake before, during and after, and consider leaning on electrolytes, and other essential minerals that support immunity and recovery like magnesium and zinc too.

Evidently, every case is different, and only you can be the judge of whether it’s safe to get moving. But it’s also important to ask the question: do you actually feel like exercising, really? Too often we find ourselves in a space of movement out of obligation — people may feel they owe it to themselves, to their fitness journey, to their tummy they seek to tone, or their classes that they’ve already paid for (and the cancellation fee they might cop as a result).

What we can assure you is that sometimes it’s okay to take a rest day, even just mentally. Indulge a little instead. Re-watch your favourite TV show in bed, have your loved one bring you some food. It may not always feel like it, but these moments are as essential to healing as movement itself. After all, I think we can all agree that a balanced life is paramount.

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