Should You Exercise With A Cold?


Cold season is about to get going at full steam, and will no doubt put another obstacle in our journey to health and fitness.  When a cold hits and your throat is sore, nose is stuffed, and head aching, the last thing many people want to do is work out.  Often times, people will claim that working out will only make them sicker. 

This question is one that has surprisingly been researched very little.  Many exercise physiologists and doctors are confused as to whether or not they should recommend rest or exercise to people suffering from the common head cold. 

“That question has not been actually studied,” said Dr. Aaron E. Glatt, a spokesman for the Infectious Diseases Society and the president of New Island Hospital in Bethpage, N.Y.

It seems that many people will take it on a case by case basis, and operate under their own conditions.  The more hardcore, old-school types will generally work out and claim to feel better.  Others will skip the workout and claim working out only makes their symptoms worse.  Dr. David Joyner, an exercise researcher at the Mayo clinic will continue to work out unless he is physically unable to get out of bed.  Dr. Joyner says, “I can tell you that unless I am really wiped out, I still work out but maybe scale back a bit.”

For those who will work out no matter what, there have been a couple studies that purport the benefits.  These two studies were on the small side, and published over a decade ago, but they look at the physiological and physical effects of exercise when a subject has a cold. 

First off, does a cold affect your ability to exercise?  Researchers examined this by deliberately infecting willing subjects with the rhinovirus, the most common cause of a head cold.  Before anyone was infected, all subjects’ lung capacity and exercise ability was tested.  This served as the basis to test against.  Two days after cold symptoms developed, researchers tested the subjects again.  The researchers, much to their own surprise, found that having a cold had no bearing whatsoever on lung capacity and exercise expenditure levels.

Another question the researchers wanted to answer; does exercise during  a cold affect your symptoms and recovery time?

Yet again, more subjects were infected with the rhinovirus.  Some of the subjects exercised while sick, others were instructed to rest.  The subjects that exercise spent time running on the treadmill for 40 minutes, every other day at a 70% max heart rate.  Thereafter, subjects were required to fill out a questionnaire about how they were feeling.  In addition researchers collected used tissues and weighed them to determine if mucus levels increased.

Again, the researchers were surprised to see that there was no difference in symptoms or time it took to recover for the group that exercised.  When some of the exercise group filled in their questionnaire, they responded that they felt OK, or in some instances, better than they had pre-exercise.

You may want to be cautious if you have a cold that produces a fever or a significant amount of chest congestion.  However, it appears that you should be perfectly fine, and your symptoms may improve, if you continue to work out when you have a common head cold. 

In addition, by sticking with your program, you lessen the chance that you lose your motivation and take one of those extended breaks you are fighting so hard to avoid.  By pushing through your illness, you will stay in your routine and not lose the psychological advantage you had built up prior to getting sick.  It may take a little extra willpower to get yourself to the gym when you are feeling sick, but in the short, and long-term, it’s well worth.


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