Moderate exercise is OK if you are sick

First Posted: 1/13/2012

he topic for this article came to me Tuesday morning as soon as I woke up. Literally.

Because when the alarm went off at 4:30 a.m. for me to get up for a six-mile run, I knew that I just wasn’t going to make it. What had started out as a tickle in my throat the night before was now a full-fledged sore throat, stuffy head and an achy body. Yup, I was sick. And I hate being sick. I hate that helpless feeling I get and even though I woke up too tired and sore to work out, not working out just makes me feel even worse as the day goes on.

Now often when I’m sick, I’ll exercise anyway. You can’t skip your workouts every time you have the sniffles, but this was a bit more than that, so I decided to sleep in. And that got me thinking about when you should and when you shouldn’t work out if you’re not feeling 100 percent. Sadly, what I found out is that although there is no consensus when it comes to this issue, it looks like I probably should of got out of bed and done something.

According to Dr. Rick Kellerman of the American Academy of Family Physicians, if you have the sniffles and milder symptoms of a cold, moderate exercise is probably OK. However, he also stresses for people “to listen to their bodies. If they are sick, their body is telling them something is wrong. Even though it may be tempting to not break an exercise routine, working out may actually prolong the illness.”

Experts like to cite a rule of thumb known as the “neck rule.” If your symptoms are all located above your neck (stuffy nose, scratchy throat, headache), you almost certainly have a head cold and can exercise safely. If, on the other hand, you have congestion in your chest and lungs, or feel achy, it is probably a sign of flu, bronchitis, or another more serious ailment, and you should rest up. It’s also very important to skip your workout if you have a fever. Research shows it puts too much stress on the heart, which already is beating faster because of the higher body temperature.

But the “neck rule” isn’t foolproof, and a little common sense is always a good idea. According to Jeffrey Woods, professor of kinesiology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, “The above-the-neck rule is a good one, but I’d say severe above-the-neck symptoms warrant cessation from regular exercise until the symptoms abate. Even Olympic athletes need a day or two off every once in a while.”

However, if you are sick and decide not to break your exercise routine, you may be on to something. The American College of Sports Medicine argues that moderate exercise has a beneficial effect on cold symptoms. Exercise may even help you feel better by opening your nasal passages and temporarily relieving nasal congestion. People who exercise in general tend to catch fewer colds than their coach-potato counterparts. If done regularly, moderate exercise can halve the number of days you spend with cold symptoms. And if you pass the “neck test,” you still need to take it slow at first and reduce the duration and intensity of your workout.

Also, if your fitness routine involves group exercise classes and you’ve decided to tough it out during a cold, do your class a favor and stay home. There’s no reason to get everyone sick. So pop in an exercise DVD or go for a walk around the neighborhood.

And you’ll want to ignore the old saying “feed a cold, starve a fever” because it’s only half right, but the good news is it’s the “feed” part that correct. You may not feel like eating if you have a fever, but no matter what your symptoms (except maybe for an upset stomach) you’ll always want to eat during the duration of your illness. Plus, make sure you are eating good, nutritious foods. Not only will a better well-balanced diet get you feeling better faster, but it will also keep you healthy longer.

n Mike DeCinti is the marketing director for Lumberton Radiological Associates. He can be reached at [email protected] or by calling 738-8222, Ext. 258.