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Should You Exercise When Sick?


As cold and flu season descends upon San Francisco, there is a pretty good chance you’ll catch a virus in the coming months. So how do you know when to rest versus to try and “sweat it out”? The answer is definitely no one-size-fits-all (and when in doubt, see a doctor). But there are a few general guidelines you can follow to determine if a little exercise will help you feel better or prolong your illness. Let’s take a look. 


Light Exercise vs Working Out

Workout when sick

Before we get too far, let’s clarify the difference between “light exercise” (moving the body) and a “workout.” At BootCampSF, we consider a “workout” any structured fitness routine in which you’re breathing heavily, sweating, and working hard. “Light exercise” on-the-other-hand, is non-strenuous movement such as a slow walk outdoors, low-intensity bike ride, or yoga. In fact, all of these types of activities, along with a healthy diet, have been shown to boost immunity.


Workouts awaken a stress response in the body, and when you’re healthy your body adapts to that stress. It’s through the progressive adaptation that you get stronger and elevate your fitness level. This is the sort of movement you should avoid when sick because the stress of a strenuous workout is often too much for your immune system to handle. 


Recover Faster

Yet, if you begin feeling unwell with the sniffles, you don’t necessarily have to slide under the covers. Unless you are seriously out of shape, light exercise should not impose any problems — and the good news is it might even help you recover faster. Low impact, light exercise isn’t intense enough to cause immune-compromising stress on your body. So consider low-intensity, non-panting cardio when suffering from a cold or feeling under-the-weather. It’s been shown such activities are beneficial if you keep your heart rate elevation to a minimal (and are preferably outside).  


In Conclusion

Everybody gets sick. But often it’s tough to know what to do about it (again, when in doubt check with your doctor.) But also understand doing some sort of exercise when feeling unwell isn’t always a bad idea. And if you play it right, moving your body can actually promote immunity and help you fight the bug.