Should You Exercise if You Have a Cold?

Runny nose, sore throat or head congestion suggests greater care than usual ... read on for healthy advice

You may have heard fitness buffs claim they never get sick. While this may seem like baseless — not to mention annoying — boasting, there is scientific truth to it. Numerous studies have linked regular exercise to a lower risk of colds. And when exercisers do catch colds, they tend to have fewer and less severe symptoms than their couch-potato peers.

But what about working out with a cold? For some people, exercise is the last thing they feel like doing when they’re sniffling and sneezing.

Others, though, don’t let sickness keep them on the sidelines. They say the exertion does no harm and even makes them feel better. It turns out science is on their side.

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Research suggests that for most people, moderate exercise is probably fine as long as symptoms are above the neck — meaning a runny nose, sore throat, or head congestion. In one study, researchers actually caused subjects to develop such symptoms by spraying a cold virus into their noses. (Finding volunteers for this study likely wasn’t easy!)

Some participants were then randomly assigned to exercise for 10 days, while the others served as controls. Physical activity appeared to have no negative effects: The exercisers’ colds weren’t any longer or more severe than those of the non-exercisers.  If anything, the exercisers fared a bit better.

Keep your germs to yourself by doing your workout at home or outdoors.

The upshot is that you won’t likely do yourself harm and may even feel better if you exercise with a garden-variety cold. You may want to dial back the intensity a bit, especially if you feel more fatigued than usual during or after your workout. However, if you have more serious symptoms such as fever, extreme fatigue, swollen glands, or a chest cough, you should lay off exercise until you recover.

Regardless of your symptoms, it’s worth heeding the rule of my germophobic trainer: Never go to the gym sick.

The fact that fitness facilities typically have lots of people in close contact touching the same equipment, not to mention dripping sweat and sometimes spewing saliva onto it, makes gyms hotbeds of germ transmission.

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The standard precautions of wiping down equipment after using it and covering your nose and mouth (which isn’t exactly doable when you sneeze while, say, holding two dumbbells aloft) often aren’t adequate to prevent the spread of germs in a gym.

So if you want to exercise when you have a cold, go for it, but keep your germs to yourself by doing your workout at home or outdoors. Your fellow gym-goers will thank you.

This article is adapted from “Fitter Faster: The Smart Way to Get in Shape in Just Minutes a Day” (AMACOM) by Robert J. Davis, Ph.D, with Brad Kolowich, Jr., and is used by special arrangement. Davis is a health journalist whose work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, CNN, PBS, and WebMD.