When it comes to cold and flu season, there are many wives’ tales and anecdotes out there. Feed a fever, starve a cold. Drink orange juice for the vitamin C. Rest when you’re under the weather, and don’t exercise. While some of these sayings have some truth to them, you don’t always have to rest when you aren’t feeling your best. There are times when exercising when sick may help you feel better.
Is Exercise the Best Prevention?
Researcher Michael Flynn, who studies the effects of exercise on your body’s immune system at Purdue University in West Lafayette, says that exercise certainly can help you prevent illnesses like the cold and flu – but only if you’re exercising the right way. He found that intense exercise over long periods of time can suppress your immune system, whereas shorter bursts of moderate exercise can improve your immune system substantially.
David C. Neiman is the former president of the International Society of Exercise Immunology and director of the Human Performance Laboratory at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina. Studies he conducted there found that moderate exercise can help immune cells recirculate throughout the body more efficiently. This means that moderate exercise can effectively “clean” the body of impurities, including viruses, before they have a chance to produce symptoms.
Neiman also found that intense, frequent exercise can reduce athletes’ immunity to colds and flus by about half, and he advises that they use additional precautions during cold and flu season. These include frequent handwashing, avoiding close contact with others, eating well-balanced diets, getting plenty of sleep, and avoiding sources of significant mental stress.
Study on Exercising when Sick
Although it is certainly important to get plenty of rest when you’re feeling under the weather, there is some evidence to suggest that exercising when sick is a great idea. In one study conducted at Ball State University, a group of volunteers were deliberately infected with rhinovirus, which is responsible for about 50% of all colds, and were then divided into two groups. One group did nothing but rest, and the other group exercised at a moderate intensity for 30 minutes each day, five days per week.
While the results eventually showed that exercise didn’t change the duration or type of symptoms – both groups continued to display the same symptoms for roughly eight and a half days – the severity of those symptoms was reduced significantly in the group that exercised. Those individuals reported feeling much better during the afternoon and evening hours, which is when most cold and flu symptoms tend to peak.
The Best Advice
Dr. Leonard Kaminsky, the exercise physiologist responsible for the Ball State University study, set forth a few very helpful guidelines for those who want to exercise when sick.
- You should continue to exercise when you have cold or flu symptoms, but only if you have mild symptoms, such as a runny nose, sneezing, or sore throat.
- If you have a chest cold, or if your flu symptoms are below the neck, like chest congestion and coughing, you should use more caution when exercising and either keep your sessions to minimal lengths and intensities, or consider resting.
- If you have a fever above 99.5 degrees, you should rest and avoid exercise. Working out can increase your body temperature even further, which can make symptoms worsen.
- If exercising makes you feel worse, or if you are just recovering from a significant complication caused by the flu, you should speak with your doctor about the appropriate time to return to your normal workout schedule.
Dr. Kaminsky says that continuing to exercise when sick is especially important for athletes and bodybuilders, whose bodies rely on regular training to stay in their peak conditions. Taking breaks for days at a time can interrupt anabolic processes and slow their metabolisms. He recommends rest periods of no longer than two days, when possible.
Should you exercise when sick, or should you rest? Ideally, you should try to exercise moderately in short bursts, as this will help boost your immune system. However, if you have significant chest congestion, or if you’re running a fever, resting with a bowl of chicken soup and a tall glass of orange juice is probably your best bet.