Sports and Exercising While Sick


Healthy Living – December 19, 2016
JP Stowe, ATC – Eastern Maine Medical Center

Being sick can take a huge toll on your energy, mood, and motivation. Whether you work out daily or you’re an athlete playing sports, the desire to keep going throughout the illness is something that I see almost daily in the winter time. Is it a good idea to push through a tough workout or practice when you’re sick? How can you know when you might be doing more harm than good?
When the body is faced with a foreign attack, our immune system works hard to defend us. Every day bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites come at us. It’s a germ jungle out there, and the most common invaders cause colds, sinusitis, middle ear infections, the flu, and tonsillitis. Even though you may feel under the weather, exercise may actually help make you feel better even for the short term. It can help relieve congestion and mild to moderate intensity work (treadmill walking, jogging, and light weights) for 30-40 minutes can actually help boost your immune system. On the flip side, too high of an intensity or exercise time can actually dampen the immune response, so be careful.
As a general rule of thumb, follow these guidelines:
  • Mild to moderate physical activity is usually okay with your garden variety cold
  • If your symptoms are only “above the neck”- runny nose, congestion, and mild sore throat- it’s probably okay for you to be active
  • Don’t exercise when your symptoms are “below the neck”- chest congestion, upset stomach, and hacking cough
  • Don’t exercise if you have a fever, fatigue, or widespread muscle aches
  • If you do choose to exercise, reduce the intensity of the workout or practice
  • If you do choose to exercise, hydrate well and get plenty of sleep
Activities to avoid:
  • Heavy strength training
  • Endurance training
  • High intensity interval training
  • Team sports
  • Exercise in extreme temperatures
What if you are a high school athlete and feel that you can’t miss a practice? The most important message is that if you are contagious and don’t feel well, stay home! Don’t risk getting half of the team sick during the season.
For most of us, one or two days off from a work out or practice will not set us back. If you feel miserable, just stay on the couch and get some rest. For those extra motivated individuals, scale back the time and intensity and follow the guidelines above. Let your symptoms and your body be your guide and if you have any concerns or questions, consult your doctor before beginning any type of activity.