Is Exercise Good for You When You’re Sick?

When we’re ill, the thing most of us want to do is curl up in bed or on the couch with a blanket and sleep it off with warm drinks. We want to nurse our bodies back to health with quiet lazy days of rest and inaction. The last thing most of us think about is exercise. We’re often prescribed nothing more than rest and lots of fluids for mild illnesses.

Exercise might seem either unthinkable or counterintuitive when you’re ill. It’s the one time you’re supposed to be lazy, right? Well, in many cases, no, exercise is good for you when you are sick.

Exercise might be the last thing you feel up to when you have a cold, and rest is an important part of supportive therapy for viral infections,” said ICU Shubhangi Karmakar. “Being active should always, but particularly when recovering from illness, be a very personal thing — not dictated by 10,000-step counters or numbers on a chart. If you have mild symptoms of what people might call a ‘head cold’ — runny nose, mild sore throat, a little muscle fatigue — even 15 minutes of gentle stretching or a walk in the fresh air could help you feel better.”

Getting up and getting moving can actually help ease your symptoms. You can see improvements in your sleep quality, nasal congestion, appetite and energy from being outdoors. But, there are certain times when exercising while ill is not advisable. It depends on your sickness. And, if you are contagious, it is better to exercise in your home or outdoors away from people.  

Dr. Karmakar said, “If… you’re already experiencing significantly labored breathing at rest, a fast heartbeat, feeling shivery or running a fever, or feeling pain in your joints, these can all be signs your immune system is working overtime to cope with the demands of the illness. In this case, it might be a better idea to prioritize rest and physical recovery. Vigorous exercise itself puts our bodies under metabolic stress — not to mention the risk of injuries from fatigue, or from a lack of coordination when we’re preoccupied with feeling unwell.”

In the end, Dr. Karmakar said, “There are a few priorities to consider to tailor your exercise to your current physical health. Make sure you’re nourishing your body well enough for activity, plan mostly for maintenance of your health and stamina and don’t be disheartened if you only manage a small fraction of your usual activity every day — after all, your body is already working overtime producing an immune response and fighting an illness. Finally, make sure you actively plan safeguards ahead of starting an activity, to avoid exercise making your health worse.”

Generally speaking, the rule of thumb should be that if your symptoms are all centered in your head and don’t have a fever, get some movement in your day. If you have an upset stomach, chest problems, are achy or have a fever, just rest up.

Exercising while you have a fever can make you sicker rather than help you heal. Dr. Lewis Maharam, a sports medicine expert, said, “The danger is exercising and raising your body temperature internally if you already have a fever because that can make you even sicker.”

You should follow the rule not to exercise if your symptoms are below the neck. And you need to listen to your body. Don’t try to “push through.” If you don’t feel up for it, don’t do it. On top of all that, sometimes illness comes with feeling faint or dizzy. A fall can be severe, and you certainly don’t want to add an injury on top of sickness!

Banner image: Polina Tankilevitch via Pexels

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