60-Second Solution: How to Exercise When You’re Sick

By Kristen Domonell |

Plus, how to tell the difference between cold and flu—and get back to good health ASAP.

It’s cold and flu season, which means you’ll likely ask yourself a few times, “Am I getting sick?” In this Fit for Life Challenge video, fitness expert David Jack explains how to help—not hamper—your body if you’re starting to feel unwell.

But what about exercise if you are currently sick or were sick but now on the mend? Or maybe you’re fuzzy on the difference between cold and flu symptoms. To help you care for yourself this season, we asked Jack and Sara Bradley, M.D., an associate professor of medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, for guidance.

Know This: You Can Still Help Protect Yourself

You’ve probably heard that this flu season is a bad one. All states except Hawaii are reporting widespread flu, and it’s peaking earlier than usual, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The most common strain this year is H3N2, which can be particularly dangerous for the very young, adults 65 and older, and people with health conditions such as heart disease, lung disease, or diabetes.

If you haven’t gotten your flu shot, you still can and should—given that there are 11 to 13 more weeks of flu season, according to the CDC.

“This time of year, it is still beneficial and can decrease your risk of getting the flu, or if you do get it, it may be less severe and less likely to lead to hospitalization,” Dr. Bradley says.

Medicare normally covers one flu shot per flu season, and many health plans also cover flu shots as preventive care (check your health plan website for information). If you don’t have health coverage, you can get a flu shot at a clinic or pharmacy for a fee (find a location at vaccinefinder.org). You can also check local news and organizations for free or low-cost options.

Know This: Cold vs. Flu Symptoms

Understanding the difference between cold and flu can help you seek the right treament and know how much rest you need. Ask yourself: Do I feel bad in my nose and throat—or do I feel bad all over? And how bad do I feel?

“Generally, cold symptoms aren’t affecting someone systemically. They may have nasal congestion, but the rest of their body feels fine,” Dr. Bradley says. “The flu tends to be more severe and can affect the whole body.”

Cold symptoms are usually more minor than flu symptoms, she says. Common signs of cold include:

  • Runny nose
  • Watery eyes
  • Sinus headache
  • Minor sore throat
  • Cough

Important: There’s no cure for the cold, and the best treatment includes rest, fluids, and non-drug remedies. But if your cold symptoms are severe or making a condition like diabetes hard to manage, call your doctor.

Flu symptoms, on the other hand, are more severe and widespread. They can include:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Cold-like symptoms, such as runny nose, cough, and sore throat
  • Nausea or diarrhea

Important: If you’re experiencing flu symptoms, contact your doctor sooner rather than later, Dr. Bradley says. Flu treatment, if started within 48 hours, can decrease the duration of the illness.

How badly and for how long you experience symptoms will depend on a number of things, including your baseline health and any conditions you may have, Dr. Bradley says. For example, if you have lung disease, nasal congestion may affect your breathing more than someone who does not.

Now, what about exercise?

Do This: Be Cautious If You Start to Feel Unwell

You know those days when you start to feel a tickle at the back of your throat, but you aren’t really sick yet? For most adults, that’s a sign you should slow down your exercise routine, Jack says.

“When you feel something coming on, it’s never a great idea to train at max capacity,” he says. “But sometimes just the right amount of exercise can help your body rebound.”

At this point, imagine whatever a 7 or 8 would be on your personal scale of 10 for exercise intensity—and scale down to 5, Jack recommends. Yoga, stretching, and light cardio like walking are all good choices if you think you might be catching a cold but aren’t quite sure.

Of course, if your doctor has given you instructions or your instincts say to rest, follow them.

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Do This: Rest and Recover When You’re Sick

If you have a cold or the flu, you shouldn’t exercise at all, Jack says. Your body needs time to heal, and adding the stress of fitness to an already overburdened system won’t help you get better—and could easily make things worse, he says.

When you’re in the middle of an illness, gentle movement—not fitness—is the name of the game, Jack says. Standing up from time to time to walk and get water, moving your arms and legs around while you’re lying in bed, sitting up to get off your back, and moving your joints will all keep you from getting too stiff while you rest.

Do This: Take It Slow When You Feel Better

One of the biggest mistakes people make when they’ve been sick is jumping back into their exercise routine too soon, Jack says. Not only could this slow down your recovery or cause a relapse, but if you’re still contagious and you exercise in a public place, you’re putting others at risk too.

Easing back in very slowly will give you a chance to see how your body responds that night and the next day. Did exercising make you cough more? That’s a sign that you’re not ready to exercise more intensely just yet, Jack says.

“Be patient,” he says. “Once you can say, ‘I’m really starting to feel like myself again’ and you’ve felt that way for a couple days, that’s when you can start slowly increasing exercise frequency and intensity.”

Usually, it takes a week or two—but sometimes longer—to get back on track after a bad cold or the flu, Jack says. Mentally prepare for that, and know that you don’t need to make up for lost time by doing extra exercise once you’re feeling better.

“Fitness serves and supports your health, but recreational fitness has to be subservient to your health,” he says.

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