Working Out While Sick: When To Exercise and When To Stay Home

It’s no secret that regular exercise is a key component of overall health. Whether you’re a regular gym-goer or prefer to get moving in the great outdoors, exercise can help prevent chronic diseases and is beneficial for heart health and immune function.

For many of us, it takes time, dedication, and focus to get exercise each and every day. Getting results — whether you’re trying to beef up or slim down — requires consistency. That’s why it can be frustrating when you have to skip your workouts due to illness.

It’s understandable that many of us want to keep exercising, even when we feel under the weather. So when is working out while sick OK? Here, we’ll show you which symptoms indicate you can work out and when it’s better to stay home and rest. Plus, we’ll offer some tips on how to work out when sick and how to stay healthy.

When It’s Okay To Work OutWorking out while sick: A man sits on his yoga mat and holds his throat

There’s no hard and fast rule about when it’s OK to workout. That’s because different illnesses may require longer recoveries than others. For instance, the common cold typically lasts seven days while the flu can produce symptoms including a deep cough that lasts for weeks. However, there is some consensus on working out while sick based on your symptoms.

Many doctors recommend doing the “neck check.” This test involves evaluating which types of symptoms you have and where they’re located. If your cold and flu symptoms are only above your neck, it’s probably safe to exercise. This includes symptoms such as a sore throat and nasal congestion such as a runny nose or stuffy nose. If you have an earache or sinus infection, you can likely do mild exercises.

If you’re still sick or have a contagious cold, it’s better to work out from home until your symptoms subside. This helps to prevent spreading germs and getting other people sick. It’s also a good idea to check with your doctor to get the go-ahead to resume exercise. If the doctor recommends more rest, follow his or her advice until you’re well enough to get back in the gym.

When To Rest InsteadWorking out while sick: A woman holds her hand to her head and looks at a thermometer

On the other hand, if you experience symptoms below your neck, it’s better to skip your exercise routine and rest. Symptoms such as chest congestion, persistent cough, difficulty breathing such as wheezing, and stomach upset are all signs you should skip your scheduled workout.

Persistent Cough or Respiratory Symptoms

When you have a persistent or deep cough, this may be a sign of a respiratory infection such as pneumonia. Working out can make these symptoms worse. That’s because as you work out, your heart rate rises and your body needs more oxygen. So if a productive cough or respiratory illness prevents you from breathing deeply, you may experience fatigue, fainting, and shortness of breath.

In addition, many respiratory ailments are spread through tiny droplets, meaning working out with these symptoms could increase the risk of infection for those exercising around you. This is especially the case with COVID-19. If you have respiratory symptoms, stay home and focus on rest and recovery in place of your daily exercise regimen.


A fever is a natural component of the body’s defense system and immune response. Research shows the human body increases core temperature in order to fight viruses and bacteria that make us sick. While a fever can be a sign your immune system is working to get you healthy, it can also be detrimental when working out.

Working out when you have a fever puts you at a higher risk for dehydration. Having a fever can also make you feel weak and cause muscle aches and body aches, making your workouts less effective. Studies show fevers may also increase your impairment, including muscle control, and may cause dizziness. This leads to an increased risk of injury when working out with a fever.

If you have a fever, it’s best to stay home and rest until your body temperature returns to normal. Focus on drinking plenty of water and electrolytes to stay hydrated as you fight the infection that’s making you sick. The good news is most fevers only last a day or two, so you should be back to your normal workout routine in no time.

Upset Stomach

Working out is a non-starter when you have a stomach bug. These illnesses are often accompanied by symptoms such as diarrhea and vomiting. Even if you could squeeze in a workout without running to the restroom, these illnesses put you at higher risk for dehydration. A strenuous workout can dramatically increase your chances of dehydration, making your illness and symptoms worse or even life-threatening.

Additionally, a stomach bug can make you feel weak and fatigued, increasing your risk of injury during workout sessions. You should also know the stomach flu is a highly infectious disease, so going to the gym can increase the risk of spreading the illness.

If you have a stomach bug, stay home and focus on your recovery. Stay hydrated to avoid the symptoms of dehydration, and try to get plenty of sleep to promote recovery. Once symptoms such as diarrhea and nausea subside, you can get back into the gym or hit the trails.

Tips for Working Out While SickWorking out while sick: A yoga class in child's pose

If you have a mild case of the sniffles or other mild symptoms such as a headache and sneezing, working out at home is OK. Avoid working out in public places and gyms or attending workout classes where you may spread your germs and get other people sick.

If you think you have a contagious illness like COVID-19, get tested as soon as possible. Quarantine away from people, including family members, until you receive your test results. If you test positive, follow your doctor’s orders and avoid public places to prevent further spread of the illness.

If you have a mild cold, that doesn’t mean you can immediately dive into strenuous or high-intensity physical activity. In order to support recovery, take things easier than you normally would. Whether you’re recovering from a stomach bug or mild head cold symptoms, try to focus on low-intensity exercises until your symptoms subside.

For example, try walking instead of high-intensity cardio exercises such as running or doing sprints. On your first day back in the gym, do a low-intensity activity such as yoga, Tai Chi, or pilates. You can also do mild to moderate strength training with dumbbells.

Pay attention to your body, and back off any moderate exercises or cardio that make you feel winded or exhausted. You can use a wearable tracker to monitor your heart rate and know when to decrease your intensity level. As you start to feel better, you can slowly work your way up to more intense exercises like spin class, biking, and sprinting on the treadmill.

Keep in mind you may notice a decrease in muscle strength after an illness, so work your way up to what you were lifting before you got sick. If you work with a personal trainer or sports medicine expert, let them know how you feel throughout the workout. That way, they can help you progress to more intense activities when you’re healthy enough to do so.

How To Stay HealthyAdobeStock 347820341

The best way to avoid missing workouts is to avoid getting sick in the first place. Wash your hands with soap and water regularly, especially after touching high-traffic items such as doorknobs. Wash your hands before every meal and before entering and leaving the gym.

You may want to toss a bottle of hand sanitizer in your gym bag to use when soap and water aren’t easily accessible. You can also use a towel and sanitizing spray to wash down equipment before and after use to prevent the spread of germs.

If you are sick, help to prevent others around you from catching the illness. Cover your sneeze and cough with a tissue or into your elbow. If you suspect you have the flu or common cold, stay home to avoid spreading the illness to others. If your symptoms are mild, you can try doing a gentle workout in your home instead of going to the gym.

If you suspect you have a contagious respiratory disease like COVID-19, it’s important to see a doctor. Avoid going in public and being near others you could infect. However, if you must go out for groceries or other necessities, wear a mask and maintain six feet of separation from others. If a test shows you’re positive for a contagious respiratory disease, stay home and avoid exercise. Only return to normal activities after getting approval from your physician.

Monitor Your Health When Working Out

Biostrap makes it easy to monitor your health when working out while sick or healthy. The comfortable wearable tracker enables you to track everything from your oxygen saturation level to your heart rate. It’s a great tool to gain scientific metrics on how your body performs while you sweat it out.

Biostrap’s comprehensive sleep tool also makes it easy to see if you’re getting the rest you need for recovery. The tool captures biometric readings every two minutes so you can monitor your sleep and address any related issues.

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