To Exercise or Not to Exercise: What Should You Do When Sick?


Published: April 2, 2009

As soon as I returned from Spring Break in Fla., I encountered what anyone who works out would consider a nightmare: I got terribly sick. When I dropped my bags at the dorms at 4:45 a.m. on March 21, my head was pounding and my nose was producing substances not associated with pristine health. I developed a serious sinus infection due to a combination of climate change, a full day of travel and extreme exhaustion from the previous night.

Knowing that I had a goal to reach (to lose 15 pounds by graduation), I had to make a tough decision: should I work out while I’m sick? On one hand, I felt like crap a few days after I returned. I needed to rest and regain nutrients and fluids to recover. However, on the other hand, I had a goal to reach. In addition, if I didn’t continue to push and exercise on a consistent basis, my laziness could have overcome my will to work out.

To answer this question, I consulted my two best available sources of fitness information: the archives of American Fitness and my friend, Christina Vanyo, FCLC ’10, who is a certified personal trainer.


The Experts Say

According to a September-October 1998 issue of American Fitness, if I have a cold but no fever, exercising should be ok. However, the article issued two warnings: I should not expect to “sweat” out a cold because, regardless of how hard I work out while sick, the duration of the illness will be the same.

The article also warns that if I have been coughing up mucus, I should avoid exercise because my breathing and lung capacity may be reduced temporarily. I was not coughing up mucus, but rather blowing mucus out of my nose in order to alleviate the pressure in my sinuses. I could breathe out of my nose, but not extremely well. Confused, I consulted Vanyo for more advice on what to do.

Vanyo immediately told me, “Personally, I will exercise as long as my body has the energy.” She went on to tell me something that rang true. “Pay attention to how your muscles feel—for example, your balance—your ability to breathe and whether or not activity induces nausea.”

Vanyo left me one big piece of advice: Listen to your body, especially when you are sick. With this in mind, I came to my decision to both rest and work out.


My Personal Results

Before I fell ill, I had been working out three times a week. After coming back from Spring Break, I decided to take two routes: rest until I felt better and work out through my illness.

The first Monday back, I decided to rest because my body was not feeling up for working out. I also took the time to sleep in, skip my two Rose Hill classes, and do what I needed to do for my body, including eating as much as I needed.

However, the two following days, I decided to work out, alternating cardio-focused and bodybuilding workouts.

The second day back, I restricted my cardio workout to three-fourths of my usual routine. Instead of biking 10 to 12 miles per 30-minute session, I biked for seven and a half miles. In addition, I limited the number of abdominal crunches and bicep curls that I did that day. Afterwards, I felt great and, most importantly, not physically exhausted or sick. My breathing did not feel restricted at any point, despite the fact I was still recovering from the sinus infection.

However, my third day back was a completely different story. Before working out that day, I thought to myself, “Yesterday went extremely well. Why not go full-steam today?” Since I alternate between cardio and weight-lifting workouts every other day, my workout would focus mainly on my arms, back and chest.

By the time I reached the middle of my workout, I found myself slumped over one of the machines, feeling nauseous and dizzy. I had pushed myself too far and my body was paying the price. I immediately went up to my room, drank some water, and relaxed while my body recovered. I decided not to work out the rest of the week to give my body the rest it needed.

Take it from me: when you’re sick but still need to work out, listen to your body! If you know you’re still sick and you have the energy, push but limit yourself until you’re healthy again. Just always remember: listen to your body.