To Exercise Or Not? What To Do When You Catch A Cold

The cold and flu season has officially arrived. Many of us will be suffering from sore throats, coughs and body aches as a result of the wonderful germs that seem to thrive in the winter weather! For the fitness conscious, it poses a problem. Do we continue our training regime or take a break?

It is a difficult situation to address because nobody wants to put their progression on hold when they have been so dedicated to reaching their goals. Our immune systems fiercely battle against illness and this requires a lot of energy! The question is will exercise worsen our illness and lead us to injury or will it improve our health and speed up recovery? Well, it turns out that both of these statements are correct but the decision you make depends upon the nature of your illness.

Specific to Symptoms

You can exercise if:

- You feel that you have enough energy to do so.

- You have mild symptoms – ie runny nose.

- Your symptoms are above the neck only.

- You haven’t been suffering with a fever for 48 hours.

- You are suffering from a cold which began in the last 24 hours (you may not be able to accurately gage the severity).

If you decide to go ahead with training, you should reduce the intensity and duration of your workout. You also need to be wary of any cold medication that you take. Decongestants can increase heart rate, which can cause problems during exercise when your heart rate is elevated further. If you become short of breath or dizzy you should stop exercise immediately. If after one session of training your symptoms appear to be worse, discontinue your routine and rest up.

If you try to exercise as normal, it is likely that this will place too much physical stress on your body. Excessive training can reduce white blood cells and increase cortisol levels (stress hormone) which may inhibit immune function.


You shouldn’t exercise if:

- You have a fever.

- You have muscle and/or joint pain.

- You have a cough.

- Your symptoms are flu-like – Rash, diarrhoea and/or vomiting.

- You are suffering from a cold and have a chronic health concern (heart disease, asthma, diabetes).

- You are suffering from extreme fatigue.

- You have swollen lymph glands.



Sharing is caring but not when it comes to germs. Your fellow fitness fanatic will not enjoy you sneezing over the gym machines or coughing all over them during aerobics class. We all want to avoid getting ill so make sure that you keep it to yourself if you decide to exercise during your illness. Opt for taking a long walk/ light jog/ bike ride outside. The fresh air will make you feel better and you won’t be spreading your germs with anyone who uses the same facilities as you! Let’s face it; the last thing you want is to return to the gym only to catch the same illness from someone else!

If you don’t fancy taking your workout outdoors in the winter, you can always set up a mini workout or try some bodyweight exercises in the comfort of your own living room.

Returning to Exercise

If you decide that the best thing for you to do is take a break from training, you must try not to have ridiculously high expectations when you finally return. It will be tempting to make up for lost time with a vigorous workout, but heading back into training full throttle is the best way to land yourself back where you started. Sick.

Listen to your body and gage the level of workout you are comfortably capable of to begin with. Veselik (2012) recommends returning to training at 50% intensity for 50% of your normal training duration to see how well you can handle the training. You must account for the fact that you will not be in the same health or fitness state you were when you took a break.

For diet and training specific advice on recovery, check out our article on The Road To Rapid Recovery. Remember to take it easy, listen to your body and keep yourself well hydrated. You will be back to your best in no time ;).


Fitzgerald L, Exercise & the Immune System, Immunology Today, 1988, 9(11): 337-9.

Hemila H, Virtamo J, Albanes D, Kaprio J, Physical Activity & the Common Cold in Men Administered with Vitamin E & Beta-Carotene, Medicine & Science in Sport & Exercise, 2003, 35(11): 1815-20.

About the Author

Job Role Sports Nutritionist and Social Media Coordinator Qualifications Bsc Sport and Exercise Science Steph has a competitive athletic background which spans 19 years. As a child she performed with the English Youth Ballet and had performed on the West End stage by the age of 10. Her enthusiasm for sport and fitness continued to grow as she did, encouraging her to learn more about nutrition and training. She began using her knowledge and personal experience to help others when she began coaching at the age of 16. From here, she went on to study Sport and Exercise Science at the University of Essex during which time she also received the Most Promising Newcomer Award from her University to mark her outstanding contribution to sport. During her first year of study she was introduced to partner stunt acrobatics and artistic gymnastics. After one year of dedicating herself to a lifestyle revolving around her sport, she was training with the best team in the UK who are currently ranked fifth in the world. Steph has worked in both the private and public sector coaching children and adults from grassroot to elite level as well as providing them with cutting edge advice on how to reach their goals. Steph has received awards for her choreography and has competed nationally and internationally meaning that she can back up her scientific knowledge with a wealth of experience. As our resident Sports Nutritionist, Steph is here to provide the most current and evidence based fitness, health and nutrition information to help you reach your health and fitness goals.
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