Should you exercise when you have a cold? We consult the experts

Expert advice on working out now that cold and flu season is here

Laura Hampson
Sunday 17 October 2021 13:56
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While Covid rages on, we have another respiratory illness to contend with as we enter the cooler months: the common cold.

Colds have been few and far between in the 18 or so months since the UK’s first lockdown, but since things have started to open up again and people began returning to offices, cold and flu season is back – with some even labelling their sore throats and runny noses as the “worst cold ever”.

When you’re sick with a cold, exercising is probably the last thing you’d want to think about – after all, “rest and sleep” is at the top of the advice list given by the NHS for getting over a cold.

Yet, if you like to stick to a regular exercise routine, not being able to work out for days, or even weeks on end can feel frustrating. So is it possible to work out and recover from your illness?

“There are pluses and minuses to exercising when sick,” NHS GP Dr Jeff Foster tells The Independent.

“On the plus side, if you are bunged up and feel a little groggy, exercising can be a way to help clear secretions, open your chest up, relieve a blocked nose, speed up your metabolism, stimulate appetite, improve sleep and release endorphins to make you feel better.

“On the downside, exercise challenges your immune system and can put unnecessary stress on a system that is already working hard. For example, if you are unwell, your heart can beat faster, so it may be hard to get enough oxygen into your nose and lungs and you may feel hot from temperature – in which case making your body work even harder can be damaging and make the illness last longer.”

Low-impact exercises are the best option if you feel poorly

Dr Xandra Middleton, founder of health community Adio, agrees, adding that exercising while ill can “rob” your body of vital energy and “compromise” your immune system.

“Intensive exercise can raise stress hormones, which can further suppress your immune system, which could make any cold symptoms that you are experiencing either worse, or harder to shake off,” Middleton explains.

“It’s always best to listen to your body than to try and push through with working out, particularly during the first few days of a cold where a fever is common. Once that fever has subsided, it can be tempting to get back on it, but it’s best to give yourself some extra time – ideally around five days or so, when most of the cold symptoms have resolved. Always start back gently to prevent the risk of injury.”

If you are desperate to fit in that morning workout, a study has found that light exercising while you’re ill can actually boost your immune system.

The review, published in the Journal of Sport and Health Science, found inactivity can cause a lower function of the immune system, but 30-60 minutes of brisk walking per day can improve your body’s defence against respiratory illnesses.

Middleton says if you feel up to it, a 15-minute walk in the fresh air can help with cold symptoms.

“Even though 10,000 daily steps is always cited as the ideal, some research shows that walking more than 4,500 improves your health, especially if you are older, so it’s important not to overdo things just for the sake of it,” she adds.

Kimberley Mitchell, a personal trainer from Origym Centre of Excellence says if your cold isn’t bad enough to have you bed-bound, you should be able to take part in a low-intensity workout.

Instead of your daily run, head for a walk or in place of your weight lifting session, practice some gentle yoga

Kimberley Mitchell, personal trainer

“A low intensity workout could mean a brisk walk or swapping out your heavier weights for lighter ones until you are back on your feet,” Mitchell advises.

“When you’re sick, the last thing you want is to make yourself feel any worse, so take it easy and don’t push yourself past your limits. This could mean that instead of your daily run, head for a walk or in place of your weight lifting session, practice some gentle yoga. You should avoid pushing yourself as hard as you normally would, because your energy levels are bound to be compromised when you’re unwell, plus you don’t want to prolong your illness further by burning out.”

To test if you’re ready to do light exercise or resume your regular workouts, Middleton says the best thing to do is to walk up a flight of stairs.

“If you can walk up a flight without coughing, feeling dizzy or needing to have a rest, you can move onto a 15-minute outdoor walk,” Middleton explains. “I would then test that walk, and see if you are tired afterwards. If you are still okay, try a 30 minute walk and finally you can go back to your normal exercise regime.

“It’s very important that you do the first full workout at 50 per cent of your normal intensity to make sure that you don’t create an injury. Your body has been less active and has been busy fighting off illness, so it’s important to take care that first time back. An extended warm-up can clear some of the stiffness in your muscles. A longer than usual, gentle cool down can also help.”

Dr Foster adds that, overall, you have to judge how much rest your body needs in order to recover from its illness.

He adds: “The way to think about it is, if you have a cough or cold – the type of thing you should not be needing to see your doctor about – then exercising is probably fine. If you have anything more serious, whether it’s a flu, Covid, a urine infection or bacterial tonsillitis, then rest up and don’t make your body work harder than it needs to.”

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