Fitness Files

Can exercise actually help you feel better when you're sick?

It's cold and flu season. Here's how to know when to call in sick and when to suck it up.

Some people use the slightest icky feeling as an excuse to call in sick from workouts, while others are loath to miss a session and hit the gym even when not 100 percent. What do the experts say about working out when sick? It depends on what's making you feel not so hot in the first place. Sometimes exercise is the best thing you can do, sometimes it's the worst. Use this guide to know the difference — and what to do if and when you do hit the gym.

What's wrong: fever and an achy body
The right thing to do:
Don't just sit out your workout, climb back into bed. "Researchers have studied animals with the flu that were forced to exercise, and they ended up getting a more severe flu and stayed sick longer," says David Nieman, a professor of health and exercise science and director of the Human Performance Lab at Appalachian State University. "Don't think you can sweat out the flu — it's a very unwise strategy. Instead, rest and wait until your symptoms are almost gone before you slowly get back to your routine." That means starting with, say, a short walk when you start feeling better and gradually ramping up the intensity; working out too intensely too quickly after the flu could cause you to become sick again.

What's wrong: runny nose, cough and/or sore throat
The right thing to do: If you only have cold symptoms from the neck up but otherwise feel OK, it's not necessarily an excuse to skip your workout. "Research shows that working out with a cold won't make symptoms worse or cause the cold to last any longer," Nieman says.

That said, now's not the time to hit that super-intense boot camp. "If a client has a cold, I shift the workout so it's not as high impact," says Kris Michel, group fitness instructor at Chicago Athletic Clubs. "That means no jumping around or pushing your heart rate super high, and I also cut it down from an hour to 30 minutes."

What's wrong: heartburn or upset stomach
The right thing to do: Hit the gym or take a walk. Light cardio can actually make you feel better in this case — especially if you're feeling the effects of indulging in a big or rich meal. "Moving can help with digestion, just don't do any moves that put your chest below your stomach, which could make heartburn worse," Michel says. "Rotations are also to be avoided since they put pressure on your stomach, which can cause acid to rise." In other words, consider skipping yoga or ab work in favor of the treadmill, bike or elliptical.

What's wrong: headache
The right thing to do: Whether you should exercise depends on the intensity and cause of your headache. "If it's a migraine, stay in the dark and rest," Michel says. "But if it's a stress-related headache, moving can actually help relieve it." You can also do a light workout if you have a sinus headache, but don't do anything that puts your head below your heart — so, again, opt out of yoga.

What's wrong: backache
The right thing to do: If you have (or think you have) an injured disc, see a doctor or physical therapist to find out what type of movements are safe. But for minor aches or soreness from, say, sitting too much or sleeping weird, exercise is one of the best things you can do. "It used to be that if your back hurt, you were told not to move at all, but now experts think the opposite is true," says Michel. Try low-impact, easy-on-the-body exercises like swimming or elliptical cardio.

What's wrong: sore muscles
The right thing to do: Get moving! If you're sore from a previous workout or from chores around your house or in the yard, exercise can help relieve soreness by increasing blood flow to your tissues, Michel says. "If you stay sedentary, the tissue stays tight and you may be sore longer," she says. Now's the perfect time to get to that yoga class.

 

Alice Oglethorpe for Chicago Athletic Clubs

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