Should You Exercise When You Are Sick?

How science and our own bodies provide the answer

Feeling congested but still, want to train? It’s hard to kick the habit of exercise when sickness knocks on the front door. Many would rather power through illness and keep going rather than submit to illness and disease. Regardless of the symptoms, be it coughing or nausea, people still want to continue training despite how their body feels. In fact, exercise has often been perceived to be the best recovery tool from illness.

But is that actually a good idea?

In order to answer the question properly, we first need to understand what the immune system is.

Immune System 101

According to wikipedia.com, the immune system is a host defense system comprising many biological structures and processes within an organism that protects against disease. To function properly, an immune system must detect a wide variety of agents, known as pathogens, from viruses to parasitic worms, and distinguish them from the organism’s own healthy tissue.

The immune system is often divided into two sections:

  1. Innate immunity: Comprised of hereditary components that provide an immediate “first-line” of defense to continuously ward off pathogens. It does not provide continuous defense after the host becomes ill.
  2. Adaptive immunity: The adaptive immune system is a subsystem of the overall immune system that is composed of highly specialized, systemic cells and processes that eliminate pathogens or prevent their growth. As the name implies, this system is capable of adapting to whatever pathogen it is fighting in order to provide ongoing support for the body.

When our body is faced with foreign attack our entire immune system is mobilized to assist. Our immunity can be aided, weakened or strengthened based on our training habits before, during and after illness.

Both illness and athletic training stress the body. Too much stress on the body could stall your recovery delaying your immune response to the real threat. Therefore, determining if you should workout or has to do with understanding and managing the stress your current body is under.

Should you exercise when you are sick?

I’m Sick, Should I Workout?

First, let’s make a clear distinction between moving and training. Structured training in which you sweat and move heavy objects is more taxing on your immune system than simple movement.

If your symptoms are neck up, like any garden variety cold, training as you normally would should be okay. According to Dr. Raul Seballos, vice-chair of the department of preventive medicine at the Cleveland Clinic you can: “still exercise without significant limitations. If you begin to feel worse after your workout, however, cut back. Take a few days off or reduce your effort to 50% of your normal capacity. Walk for 15 minutes instead of running for 30 minutes, or do one set of lifting instead of five.”

However, the situation dramatically changes if your symptoms are below your neck. Such symptoms could include nausea, coughing fits, body shivers, and muscle soreness. These are signs of a seriously stressed body struggling to fight a virulent sickness like the flu. Adding the stress of exercise could be too much for your body to handle. You may be able to add non-strenuous movement to your day, like yoga or walking. In these circumstances, you should spend plenty of time away from rigorous or stressful activities.

To summarize, you really need to know what sickness is dragging you down before you decide whether or not you can or should train. Don’t add additional stress to an already stressed and sick body.

How Do I Speed Up My Recovery?

Sometimes sickness strikes when we least expect or want it, like in the middle of a competition season. So what do you do? Our very own OPEX Head Coach Matt Connolly recently shared some tips on his Instagram page for those who need a quick fix and path back to full-time training.

A post shared by Matt Connolly – OPEX HQ Coach (@coachmattconnolly) on

Let your symptoms be your guide when determining whether or not you should train. In order to recover quickly from illness you need to manage all sources of stress which may be hampering your bodies ability to bounce back. If you are sick, don’t hesitate to spend some time away from the gym for a change. You won’t get weaker or fat, I promise!

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