Working Out While Sick—Tough It Out or Take a Break?
Your head is pounding but you’re not puking… yet. How to tell when it’s better to shut up and deal and when you should sit this one out.
When you feel like crap, the prospect of facing 8 x 800 on the track makes you want to hurl. But you’re also tough and you’re committed, and the idea of losing ground on your hard-won fitness gains by taking a day off sucks. So the dilemma becomes whether you get out there and gut it out, or if you stay in bed until the nasty feeling passes. Here’s what the experts say.
The Issue: You’re Exhausted
Skip or Sweat? It depends. “If the dragging is due to emotional fatigue, anxiety or depression, exercise can definitely help,” says Heather Milton, an exercise physiologist at New York University’s Langone Health Sports Performance Center. Exercise increases brain chemicals serotonin and dopamine, which help improve mood. But “if the dragging follows a week of intense workouts, and if you have an elevated heart rate, sleeplessness and increased muscle soreness, then it is a sign to take the day off,” says Milton.
The Issue: You’re Really Sore
Skip or Sweat? Hit the gym but try something different than your norm, says Milton. “The soreness in muscles is due to a combination of mild muscle tissue tears, inflammation and the accumulation of calcium. Working the same muscles is not recommended, as these tissues need time to repair.” But since cardio increases blood flow and flushes byproducts out of the muscles, choose something low-impact that still gets your heart rate up. (Hello, brisk walk in the park.)
The Issue: You Skimped on Sleep
Skip or Sweat? It seems so benign, but missing sleep can actually be worse for your body than having the flu. Lack of sleep increases your risk of heart disease, type II diabetes and weight gain, and it also messes with your ability to properly recover from yesterday’s hard workout. If you’ve logged less than your usual sleep (seven to nine hours is optimal), “skip your AM workout in favor of rest, and try to reschedule for another time in the day,” says Jessica Matthews, assistant professor of kinesiology and integrative wellness at Point Loma Nazarene University. “That way you’ll be able to have a more effective session.”
The Issue: You Have a Sore Throat
Skip or Sweat? If your symptoms are above the neck (congestion, sneezing, sore throat) it’s OK to do a regular workout as long as you are well-hydrated, says Loren Robinson, M.D., of CHRISTUS St. Michael Health System. “But if you are systematically sick with fever, chills and body aches, take at least a day off,” she says. “When you have whole-body symptoms, it is a lot easier to become dehydrated and make yourself even sicker after a workout.”
The Issue: You Drank Too Much
Skip or Sweat? You might feel like hell but a workout will do your body good. “You’ll especially want exercise that supports the body’s natural detoxification methods,” says trainer Anna Hartman. Her recs: Stretches that involve side bending and rotational movements are good because they help bring fresh blood to the liver, kidneys, lymph and intestines. You may also want to slip on some comfortable leggings and hit your yoga mat for a slow-paced and gentle Yin practice, says Empress Thandi Wise, a certified yoga instructor and health and wellness coach. But please: “No headstands or inversions—we don’t want you to hurl.”
The Issue: You’re Stressed
Skip or Sweat? Get ready to sweat this one out. “Beyond working out physical tension,” says Dr. Robinson, “it can help to clear your mind.” Aerobic exercise can also improve your mood while decreasing symptoms of depression and anxiety. “Activities involving rhythmic, repetitive movements tend to be particularly beneficial in eliciting the relaxation response,” says Matthews.
The Issue: You’re Injured
Skip or Sweat? If your injury is related to your sport (stress fractures, tendonitis, pulled groin), it’s often a sign of overtraining and it’s smart to take time off to heal. If your injury isn’t sports-specific, it might do both mind and body good to exercise—in whatever capacity you’re able. One strategy: Exercise the opposite limb from the injured one. “If you break one arm, and continue to train the healthy arm, you can receive marginal improvements in the injured limb,” says Percell Dugger, a certified strength coach and founder of GOODWRK. What’s more, “Staying active can decrease anxiety, especially for an athlete whom may feel frustrated or not themselves without exercise,” says Milton. Time to get after it.
There will be days you miss a workout—that’s life. But you can improve your odds of staying on track by making sure you recover properly after every hard session.