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Should you exercise if you’re sick?

We know that one of the best ways to avoid everything from infections to chronic disease is to get plenty of exercise and eat a healthy diet.

If you’re someone who regularly works out, it can be difficult to take time away from fitness. Sometimes, it’s hard to know when you should continue with your workouts, and when you should stay home and give yourself some extra time to rest.

Here are a few questions to ask yourself when you’re trying to figure out whether you should exercise if you’re feeling unwell:

Are you contagious?

If you’re sick, it’s not just your own health that you need to worry about. You also need to spare a thought for the people around you.

Spare a moment to think about the way that most contagious illnesses are spread. Usually, infection occurs when you breathe in infected droplets of moisture or touch a surface that has these droplets on it, and then touch your nose, eyes, or mouth. Places like gyms, studios or public pools are the perfect environment for viruses to spread: people are breathing more, which means they’re expelling moisture droplets into the air, and of course, sweating and then often leaving that sweat (even after wiping it with a towel) for someone else to touch. On top of that, this is all happening within an enclosed space with lots of shared equipment.

If you’re still undecided, here’s an idea: think about if you were at the gym, and someone with your symptoms was working out next to you. Would you be uncomfortable? If the answer is yes, it’s probably best to do some low-intensity exercise at home or give yourself a rest.

Are you exhausted?

Fatigue is one of the body’s ways of telling us that we need to slow down and rest. Often when you’re feeling exhausted, the last thing you want to do is put yourself through a gruelling workout.

Fatigue is a common symptom of influenza and sometimes experienced with the common cold. Rest can help the immune system to fight viral infections and hasten recovery.

Failure to get enough rest may mean that you experience symptoms for longer, and could actually mean that it takes more time for you to get back into your exercise. By taking rest now, you give your body a fighting chance to recover and return to optimal health faster.

Do you have a fever or aches?

If you’re experiencing a fever or aches in your muscles and joints, you should avoid exercise until you’re feeling better.

A temperature of over 38 degrees can be a sign of a bacterial or viral infection. When you have a fever, you may appear flushed and your skin may be warm or hot to touch. It also will generally lead you to feel dehydrated, tired, weak, achy and generally unwell.

Exercising when you have a fever can increase your temperature, make you more dehydrated, and make your symptoms feel even worse. Instead, get some rest and consider a visit to your GP or pharmacist.

Do you have chest congestion or a persistent cough?

A mild, dry cough is one thing, but a cough that’s chesty, persistent or productive (meaning it brings up mucus from the lungs, throat or sinuses) is generally more serious.

If your cough is persistent, it can make it very difficult to breathe. Breathing properly during exercise is vital, and not getting enough oxygen can not only impede your performance but also make you more fatigued. If you’re struggling to breathe, do not exercise and instead get in touch with your GP or pharmacist.

If your cough is chesty, it could be a sign of a viral or bacterial infection. In this case, you should also take some time to rest and seek advice from a health professional.

If you find that your cough is only occurring during exercise, it could be a sign of exercise-induced bronchoconstriction (formerly called exercise-induced asthma). There are treatments and strategies that you can use to manage your symptoms. Visit your GP to discuss your symptoms and find out which treatment is right for you.

Is it a stomach bug?

Vomiting and diarrhoea can be caused by many different things, but are common symptoms of bacterial or viral gastroenteritis (commonly called “gastro”). In either case, you’re likely to be very contagious, and will probably experience dehydration from a loss of bodily fluids.

You’re unlikely to want to exercise if you’re suffering from vomiting or diarrhoea, and should instead rest until you’re feeling better and no longer experiencing symptoms.

What to do instead

If you’re experiencing severe symptoms, have a fever, or if you suspect that you could be contagious, you’re much better off resting. Stay home, drink plenty of liquids and give your body the time it needs to recover. If you need to take time off work, your local Capital Chemist pharmacist may be able to issue you with a workplace leave certificate.

If your symptoms are mild and you feel up to exercising, then it may be a good idea to scale down your regular workout. Go for a walk or a gentle jog, do some yoga or Tai Chi, or do some gentle resistance training. If you feel tired or unwell during exercise, stop what you’re doing and get some rest instead.

If you’re concerned about losing progress, remember that a few days rest is unlikely to do you any harm. In fact, taking some time out to rest and recover likely means that you can return to your normal routine faster, perform better, and are less likely to injure yourself.

You may also be interested in the following:

At home exercises to get you moving
3 healthy and comforting dinners for cold winter nights

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Acknowledgement of Country

Capital Chemist acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of the land on which we operate, live and gather as employees, and recognise their continuing connection to land, water and community. We pay respect to Elders past, present and emerging.