Should you exercise when sick? 5 reasons not to

I’m sick. Apparently, the only way children have to thank you for tending to their needs while afflicted with head and chest colds is to pass them on. Thanks guys, I really appreciate it.

exercise when sick

A little pale, huh?

I had a big workout week planned. Lots of heavy lifting and some cardio intervals to compensate for Thanksgiving weekend dinner and pumpkin pie cheesecake. Mmmmm.

The question ‘should you exercise when sick’ is one I hear frequently.

Many people believe that ‘sweating it out’ is a good thing. I’m not one of them. There’s no evidence anywhere that viruses and bacteria leave your body via your sweat; just sayin’.

Others follow the rule ‘above your neck, head to the gym; below your neck, stay home’. I believe that the body works as a singular entity; above-the-neck illnesses don’t just affect above-the-neck body parts.

When I’m sick, I don’t work out and I don’t teach classes. I do, however, aim for some low-exertion movement, to keep my joints and brain from seizing up. How much? It depends on how I’m feeling. Usually, a walk around the block is enough. I listen to my body and so should you!

Should you exercise when sick? 5 reasons not to
  • exercise can delay recovery; when your body has been invaded by a virus or bacteria, the immune system goes into overdrive. Immune response is energetically costly. That’s why you feel so tired when you’re sick. Expend a lot of energy during a workout and your immune system has nothing to fuel it. A weakened or suppressed immune response often leads to longer recovery times.
  • a tired and weakened body is more prone to injury; for many, it’s psychologically difficult to scale back their workouts. We’ve been taught that progression is the key to getting stronger and faster and don’t want to bench press less or run at a slower pace than we did last week, even when we’re ill. Attempting your regular workout with a tired and weakened body often leads to injuries that can keep you out of the gym long after your illness is over.
  • your fellow gym-goers don’t want to get sick; gyms are dirty places to begin with. Even if your gym provides paper towels and liquid sanitizers for patrons to clean equipment with (all gyms should!), bacteria and viruses are resilient. They like to hide in warm, damp crevices and can travel for remarkably long distances when airborne. YOU don’t want to work out next to someone who’s sick and NEITHER do your fellow gym-goers. Do unto others and all that.
  • your workout will be second-rate at best; endurance and stamina are usually the first things to go when we get sick. If your workout is only going to end up being half of what it usually is, wouldn’t that time and energy be better spent resting and recovering? I’ve never heard anybody say “man, I feel great after I exercise when sick”.
  • a forced rest is as good as a planned rest; allowing your body to rest adequately between workouts is one of the most effective ways to see the fruits of your labours in the gym. Think of your time away from the gym as a muscle building phase, rather than an illness. It’s amazing how much better a little positive spin can make you feel!

Now it’s your turn;

Do you exercise when sick?

Tell me why or why not?

Then, please, make some chicken soup and send it my way?




  1. Laurie Mackeson says:

    There are less than 5 days a year when I can’t do any workouts.

    For ALL other days I chose to workout, I choose activities/routines to match how I am feeling. I don’t consider any type of workout a loss in results. Rather I see all workouts as an improvement of nothing AND what 90+% of their people do (a) as a part of their regular day or (b) when they bitch about how a small headache or slight sore thought/cough prevents them from some simple cardio.

    Simple as that.

    • Laurie, you are truly blessed with great health! I probably only get sick once or twice a year (a lot less now that kids are out of preschool and better at hand washing..). But when I’m down, I’m really down!

  2. I’m so sorry you’re sick! I’m like you – I never work out while sick! We need to give our bodies the ability to focus 100% to HEALING. When you work out , you divert that energy to muscle repair.
    love me some rest days…but i get antsy too.
    Lindsay @ Lindsay’s List recently posted…wiaw = chocolate peanut butter chiliMy Profile

    • You just got over the flu didn’t you Lindsay? It’s particularly tough being sick when you still have small children to care for. Thankfully, mine can make some simple snacks for themselves…
      I’m not antsy yet, but by Friday, definitely!

      • Laurie Mackeson says:

        Making some healthy snacks for themselves. You have obviously taught them well! Kudos. I’m sure they see your “healthy-ness” and they are lead in that direction when it comes to their own choices.

  3. FEEL BETTER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    As I mentioned on your FB page, I work out if I have the sniffles or just am “off” but really don’t feel that bad. When it become body aches & fever, NOPE, I rest. I really have had no issues with this & recovery for me.. we are all different. With age, I am sure that might change but for now, this is what I do.

    Hope you are better soon!
    Jody – Fit at 54 recently posted…Would You StairMaster for 55 Minutes to Eat a Medium French Fry?My Profile

    • Thanks Jody! My son is back at school and was only really feeling poorly for 3 days, so I’m hoping for a return to health by Friday…

      • Laurie Mackeson says:

        When your kids get sick, do you have any sort of routine that involves “quarantining” to isolate the problem from anyone else. It is something out my wife and I do now but plan to have something in place when we start a family.

        • Yes! We do a couple of things to minimize exposure to other family members (except for mom, who takes care of the sick one, hence my current condition…).
          Sick child spends time in his/her room. We allow computers, books, videos to keep them busy on their own. Towels are colour-coded. The hand-washing police come out in full force! Sick child doesn’t eat at the table with everybody else. And we up everybody’s vitamin C intake!

  4. The rare times I am ill I ask myself what advice I’d give the people in my classes. Then I take that advice. I hope you feel better.
    KymberlyFunFit recently posted…Diet Cheat Days: Yes or No?My Profile

    • Great way to re-frame! Not better today, but hopefully tomorrow!

    • Laurie Mackeson says:

      Great reminder! The quicker we apply the “message” we would quickly/freely offer someone else in a similar/same situation, the more successful we become.

  5. I hope you feel better:) I don’t exercise when I’m sick. Luckily it doesn’t happen often.
    hikermom recently posted…Workout WednesdayMy Profile

  6. I went to bed early yesterday for this very reason. The only times I exercise sick are when I cannot find a sub. Luckily, I’m very rarely sick because exercise and good nutrition (I believe) keep me in good health. And there must be something going around, as my son is also sick. He’s in DE, you’re in Canadastan, and I’m in CA. Strong winds, eh?
    AlexandraFunFit recently posted…Diet Cheat Days: Yes or No?My Profile

    • Hope you’re feeling better today Alexandra! Maybe cold and flu season has started early this year. Some seriously strong winds (I blame it on global warming…)

      • Laurie Mackeson says:

        One of the added bonuses of being “more” healthy is that you/we get sick less and/or get less sick when we get sick. The old adage “get something back for your effort” seems to/does apply in fitness/healthy living and avoiding/overcoming sickness. I consider some of my least “committed” workouts as ‘preventative medicine’. Do you think the same?

        • Very true. I don’t get sick very often and I’d like to think that it’s because I follow a healthy lifestyle!

  7. I base it on how I feel. If I just have a cold and feel fine, then I’ll exercise, but I’ll keep it lighter. Given my profession, I’ve been exposed to many viruses and have developed a sturdy immune system as a result. The rare times I do get sick, it’s usually just a scratchy throat and a mildly stuffy nose. But if I’m down for the count–achy, tired, dizzy–then absolutely no exercise for me. As you so wonderfully pointed out, the body needs to recover, and exercising in suboptimal physical conditions just risks injury.
    Carrie Rubin recently posted…Book Marketing: From Humble Dolt To Sleazy SalesmanMy Profile

  8. totally needed this post today! i have been dealing with guilt over not getting in workouts or ‘as good’ of workouts as usual because of an illness i’ve been dealing with for a week now. logically i know that rest = recovering faster, but it’s hard not to give into that urge to get moving and sweat. i actually have found that when i let myself scale back and walk or do yoga instead of something more intense, i’ve felt better on those days and days following. this post only helps reinforce that logic for me. thanks!
    Caitlin recently posted…Macy’s Rwanda Path to PeaceMy Profile

    • Is everybody sick, right now? Seriously! I guess it really is the start of cold and flu season. I took today off completely and am feeling a bit more lively this evening that last. Another day at home before I consider getting up and moving! Feel better soon Caitlin!

  9. This is great timing for me this week Tamara as I have been sick all week and feeling a little blue about not getting to the gym. Sending some virtual chicken soup your way….can we share?
    kirri White (@kirri_white) recently posted…Rockin Mamma interview with Tat from Mum in SearchMy Profile

    • Got it! Thanks Kirri! Must be the same wind that has Alexandra in California feeling unwell too… Sending some extra special home made turkey soup back to you!

  10. Really great points Tamara. Stubborn me does usually abide by the above the neck rule which you’re right, doesn’t make much sense. I do usually just try to move so I don’t feel like I”m stagnant. Right now, I’m not doing much of anything because this cold is in my chest and I feel like I can’t breathe!! No fun. Hope it goes away soon. Darn kids! 🙂
    Christine @ Love, Life, Surf recently posted…On the road againMy Profile

    • Ooh, chest colds are the worst, aren’t they Christine? Makes it hard to do cardio when you can’t breathe…
      My energy is better this evening, so that’s something!

  11. Great topic… I often struggle with this and also I agree with you that it’s best to err on the side of caution and rest, I often get caught up in my training, get concerned about missed workouts and try to plow through. Usually my sickness gets to a point where either it clears up and I get better or get totally sick to the point where training/exercising doesn’t even cross my head. It’s that “in between” time that sucks!

    • Agreed! Sometimes the answer isn’t black and white. And I do have to remind myself that my biceps aren’t going to disappear after a week away from the gym…

  12. Im a RESTER from the workout cuz we moms get no RESTING from life.
    hope youre better

    MIzMiz recently posted…Life is my sport.My Profile

  13. Feel better Tamara! I do not exercise when sick, I do not follow the above/below neck rule, I just go by how I feel!
    Toni @runninglovingliving recently posted…On The Mend…….My Profile


  1. […] Should you exercise when sick? 5 Reason not to. Usually, I abide by the rule that if it’s above the neck, go to the gym and if it’s below the neck, stay home. However, this post from Tamara at fitknitchick has me reconsidering my thinking. […]

  2. […] 12, 2012 by Tamara Leave a Comment So, here’s the deal. I’ve been sick all week. Too sick to work out at the gym. Too sick to work out at home. Even too sick to film a workout video for […]

  3. […] then remembered this post I had read by Fitnitchick about exercising when ill, well to be exact 5 reasons not […]

  4. […] of key points put it in complete perspective for me. Taken from the FitKnitChicks article titled Should you exercise when sick? 5 reasons not to. These are the key points in the article that made me feel at ease resting and not exercising. […]

  5. […] of key points put it in complete perspective for me.Taken from the FitKnitChicks article titled Should you exercise when sick? 5 reasons not to. These are the key points in the article that made me feel at ease resting and not […]