When you feel like total crap, skipping your workout is an obvious choice. But it’s a little different when you have a cold. Sure, you don’t feel as amazing as you could, but you’re not totally down and out, either.
Of course, you want to rest your body if that’s what you’re supposed to do but…is that actually going to do anything? Or is it just a lame excuse to take a pass on the gym?
Ultimately, it’s a little unclear whether it’s fine to work out with a cold, or if you should take a few days off until your sniffle goes away.
Is it okay to work out with a cold?
The answer is yes…ish, says Jessalyn Adam, MD, attending sports medicine physician at Baltimore’s Mercy Medical Center. In general, you want to follow the “neck rule.”
“If all of your symptoms are above the neck, you’re safe to work out,” she says. “But if you have symptoms that are below the neck, then you probably shouldn’t work out.”
You’re okay to hit the gym with:
Don’t work out if you have:
“Whenever I have an athlete that wants to work out, that’s the rule we use,” Dr. Adam says.
Overall, exercise helps boost your immune system, but it’s important to go with how you feel, says Kenton Fibel, MD, a family medicine physician specializing in sports medicine at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles. Even if you’re “just” dealing with a head cold, you still shouldn’t feel obligated to go to the gym if you feel terrible. “In general, listen to your body and how you feel,” he says.
Are any exercises better than others when you have a cold?
Just because you can work out doesn’t mean you should go all out. “This is not the time to go and do your hardest workout,” Dr. Adam says. “Your body is still fighting an infection.” She recommends doing “light cardio” like a comfortable run, a light stationary bike workout, or a casual session on the elliptical. “Don’t go for as long as you normally would,” she says.
As for strength training, it can be challenging because a lot of times you’re already feeling fatigued, Dr. Adam says. “If you’re congested, it’s not a good idea to go with heavy weights, but lighter weights should be fine.” (Just wipe down the equipment well after you use it to do your fellow gym-goers a solid, Dr. Fibel advises.)
And it doesn’t really matter if you work out indoors or outdoors (provided we’re not talking extreme weather here), Dr. Adam says. However, she points out, if you suffer from allergies on top of having a cold, exercising outside during allergy season could be kind of miserable.
Keep in mind that pushing your body too much—even if you feel like you can take it—can ultimately screw you over. “Exercising too hard when you’re sick can make it more difficult for your body to fight off the infection and can make it take longer for you to get better,” Dr. Fibel says.
Speaking of staying healthy…you should take a peak inside of ballerina Skyler Brandt’s nutrient-packed fridge:
What other precautions should you take?
While the “neck rule” is important to follow, there are some other nuances to consider. If you have a fever, you’re feeling really tired, you have nausea, or you have widespread muscle aches, don’t work out, Dr. Adam says. Ditto if exercise makes you feel worse.
As for what to wear, there are no magic clothes that will help get rid of your cold during your workout (although there’s an idea…). “Just listen to your body,” Dr. Adam says. “If you’re feeling cold, make sure you have enough layers. Dress appropriately for the weather.”
Bottom line: Experts stress that you shouldn’t feel obligated to work out if you’re sick. But if light exercise will make you feel better, you’re perfectly fine to do just that.
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