To Exercise or Not to Exercise when Sick – That is the Question


Aggghhh … life is busy enough as it is. There’s work commitments, your health and fitness goals, family obligations and everything else in life. It’s like a perpetual juggle where you wish there were more hours in the day. You’re in a routine, working out and trying to reach your weight loss or fitness goal … and then you get hit with a cold or the flu or some other temporary illness. So, what do you do… exercise when sick or listen to your body screaming at you to rest?

How sick are you? The Flu vs Common Cold will determine whether to exercise when sick

The influenza virus (the flu) is a powerful disease that dramatically impacts your immune system and leaves your whole body vulnerable. You know you have the flu if you feel like you’ve been hit by a train! You have achy joints and muscles, fever, weakness and fatigue, plus the regular cold symptoms of runny nose, sore throat and sneezing.

While regular exercise can improve your immune system, make you feel energized and give you that feel-good buzz, if you have the flu your body needs all its reserves to fight it. Your best option is to completely rest from training and focus on optimal nutrition and adequate fluid intake to aid your immune system. To be clear, do not exercise when sick with the flu.

Active8me to exercise or not to exercise when sick that is the question

A common cold is often characterized by a sore throat, cough, runny nose and that general feeling of being unwell. Your body is still fighting off an attack on your immune system, but it is not completely defenceless and you may still be able to do easy workouts without compromising your recovery. If you feel you are capable of exercise when sick, without overdoing it, then have a go. The key is to listen to your body.

General Rule no 1 – The Hole in The Bucket Principle!

Founder of Active8me, Jeremy Rolleston spent years as an elite and professional athlete and shares with us an important lesson he learned about training when sick. He emphasises that it is applicable to anyone who is working towards a fitness goal. “I’ve had my fair share of nasty bugs and injuries during Olympic preparations and really struggled with the idea of easing up with my training, for fear of losing fitness or not making the progress I wanted.”

Jeremy explains that a fellow athlete really put things into perspective with this analogy. “He said to me one day at training.

Think of your goal like a bucket. Every time you complete a workout it is like adding a little scoop of water to the bucket. To reach your goal, you want to fill your bucket as much as possible as it means you can best leverage all that foundation of hard work. When you are sick or injured it is like having a small leak in the bucket. The water you’ve added previously slowly leaks out?   If you push through and continue to workout when you might strain a muscle or get sicker, then you are likely to put a bigger hole in the bucket!.

This was masterful advice and helped me from that day onwards.”

Active8me To exercise or not to exercise when sick that is the question hole in the bucket principle

The Outcome

That advice made Jeremy really consider the benefits versus the harm of pushing through when you’re sick. We all want to continue adding water to our buckets. So, is it better to avoid the hole in your bucket by easing off for a day? Or, risk putting a bigger hole where you’re hard-earned efforts leak out for a week?

Jeremy is clear in his thoughts on this “It is really important to listen to your body. One or two days off for rest and recovery will leave you with plenty of stores in your training bucket and allow you to start filling the bucket again a lot sooner than if you push through and find yourself unable to function properly for a week or more. That’s a week of leaking water from the bucket.  The hole in the bucket analogy has nothing to do with mental toughness or weakness, excuses or no excuses. It is about helping you make smart decisions and listening to your body so you achieve your goals. Trust me, I’ve learned the hard way.”

General Rule no 2 – Above the neck is ‘go’ and below the neck is ‘no’ for exercise when sick!

Active8me To exercise or not to exercise when sick that is the question Above the neck below the neck rule

If your symptoms are above the neck and tolerable, such as a sore throat, runny nose, sneezing and dry cough then you are probably ok to workout (although a rest day is not going to hurt you). However, if your symptoms are below the neck such as muscle or joint aches and pains, stomach pain, nausea, tight chest or chesty cough then you are best to rest. Remember exercising when sick in this situation will cause longer recovery and possibly make you feel worse.

The moral of the story for exercise when sick

Listen to your body. You’ll get better and better at this over time, but overall you know when you’re not functioning at 100 percent. Being smart and rescheduling that intense HIIT session in place of a lighter workout, like a brisk walk or yoga might be the wise thing to do. Or having a day off instead of pushing and stressing your body with strenuous exercise when sick (or the first signs of being sick) might be smarter than extending your illness and being unable to exercise for a lot longer.

When you are healthy, your body is designed to cope with the stress of a tough workout. Your muscles respond to the training stress to make you fitter and stronger. When you are sick your immune system works overtime. It does not cope well with the stress of your regular workout. This means you end up taking more time away from exercise or compromising the benefits of your exercise.  So be smart, listen to your body and use these two rules to guide you.

Disclaimer: Please seek medical advice before undertaking any exercise program while sick or when your immune system is compromised.

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