Should you work out when you’re sick?

A few weeks ago I was home in Pennsylvania around my mother, who has pneumonia, and my Dad, who was also hacking up a lung every five minutes. After working long days and driving the 11 hours from Maine to Western PA, it stood to reason that my immune system wasn’t up to the task of fighting anything off, and I made the return trip a week later with a sore throat and a strong desire to spend the week in bed.

 For Rooney, resting and napping is always the decision. Obviously. 

For Rooney, resting and napping is always the decision. Obviously. 

But time and work wouldn’t allow for that and so I plugged on, the way many of us do when we are sick and staying home isn’t an option. The one thing I didn’t do, however, was work out. As hard as it is to take time off, especially when working on a periodized* program, I’m just making my return to the gym today, after two weeks off.

It's that time of the year when cold and flu bugs are flying around, and when you've finally hit the rhythm of your gym schedule, taking a few days off can seem like a bad idea. Below are some points to consider if you're under the weather and deciding whether or not to head to the gym.

Is it all in your head?

A general rule to follow when you’re sick is that if the symptoms are above the neck (sore throat, nasal congestion, sneezing), go for the workout and don’t hold back; in fact you might feel better. Anything below the neck (coughing, body aches, fever), stay home and wait until you’re feeling better. The research, if you're curious, on this conclusion comes from a pair of controversial studies in which subjects were actually infected with the common cold. Thomas Weidner, head of athletic training at Ball State University, who performed the study, determined that symptoms were no worse or better for exercising for being ill. Part of the reason for this may be that exercise is a scientifically proven immunity booster. 

Some personal trainers prefer that you stay away from the gym completely if you’re snot city. Gyms are crawling with germs anyway, and the chances of spreading a bug throughout the gym if you're sick increase dramatically. Also, you’ll have a tough time breathing through a difficult workout if you have respiratory congestion.

Ultimately, listen to your body. If you get through your warm up and into your workout and feel like a train wreck, pay attention. It's your body's way of telling you to get some rest. 

Consider intensity

 If symptoms are above the neck, chances are you're clear to pursue your workout, regardless of intensity. But listen to your body. 

If symptoms are above the neck, chances are you're clear to pursue your workout, regardless of intensity. But listen to your body. 

It’s important to recognize, but easy to forget, that our bodies don’t differentiate between types of stress. If work and family situations have you feeling frazzled, pounding your body with an intense workout where you’re breathing heavily, sweating, and pushing yourself to the max can sometimes have the opposite effect of your intended goals. Stressors can include physical, psychological, environmental, and lifestyle influences, but your body won't distinguish those points. In the end, stress is stress.

In the same vein, walking the dog, teaching your three-year old nephew how to do dead bugs or raking leaves are less strenuous options that likely won’t hurt you, and might even help you feel a little better.

But if your agenda includes a kettle bell class that leaves you wiped even when you're feeling healthy, this might be a good opportunity to catch up on Gilmore Girls. 

Don't judge. 

*periodized programs are progressive in nature, building from week to week and month to month