Should I Exercise With A Cold?

Should I exercise with a cold?

I am faced with this very question this week as I have succumbed to an upper respiratory illness or a “cold”.  It’s the first time in five years that I have dealt with it, and I know I picked it up on a flight two weeks ago.  The plane was filled with coughing passengers and I was trapped with nowhere to go. I have this weird issue with tracking down the person who got me sick.

Anyway, we have to remember that too much high intensity exercise can actually increase our risk of upper respiratory infections, so make sure you are practicing good common sense with your workout plan.  If you do find yourself sick, you should proceed with caution and listen to your body.  Of course I always recommend following the directive of your health care provider. While there are no hard and fast rules to follow, there are some simple things to keep in mind when deciding if you should exercise while you are sick:

  • If your symptoms are limited to just your head (runny nose, watery eyes, sore throat, etc.) and you are otherwise feeling energetic with a normal appetite, then exercising at a moderate intensity should be okay.  I would avoid high intensity work.  If you have these limited symptoms and then exercise at a high intensity, you might set yourself back.  Wait a few days for symptoms to subside before you resume any high intensity work.
  • If your symptoms seem to extend beyond your head and into other body systems, you should definitely choose rest and forego your exercise. By this I mean, are your muscles sore?   Is your neck stiff?  Do you have a fever?  Are you short of breath? Are you just generally tired?  How is your appetite? These are all questions you should ask yourself about your overall state of well-being to determine if exercising is a good idea or not.  It’s just good common sense.  Listen to your body. It will tell you.
  • Rest and/or sleep may do more good for you than an exercise session. There is a body of literature linking lack of sleep and increased risk of illness (1,2,3,4).
  • There is an old adage that sometimes you can  “sweat it out”. Don’t do this. There is no evidence that this works.  It can be dangerous.
  • Ease back into exercise once you are feeling better.  If your body has been stressed from illness, give it some time to get back into the swing of things.  Allow it to fully recover before resuming anything considered high intensity.
  • Remember to keep yourself adequately hydrated throughout your illness and beyond.


1. Bryant, P. A., Trinder, J., & Curtis, N. (2004). Sick and tired: does sleep have a vital role in the immune system? Nature Reviews Immunology,4(6), 457-467. doi:10.1038/nri1369

2. Okun, M. L. Biological consequences of disturbed sleep: important mediators of health? Jpn. Psychol. Res., 2011, 53: 163176.

3. Opp, M., Born, J. and Irwin, M. Sleep and the immune system. In: R. Adler (Ed.) Psychoneuroimmunology. Elsevier Academic Press, Burlington, MA, 2007: 579618.

4. Patel, S. R., Malhotra, A., Gao, X., Hu, F. B., Neuman, M. I. and Fawzi, W. W. A prospective study of sleep duration and pneumonia risk in women. Sleep, 2012, 35: 97101.

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