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Should you exercise when ill? our experts explain all...

April 06 2022 6 min read

Winter weather is associated with catching a cold, and even though low temperatures don’t cause you to feel poorly – the common cold is transmitted by a virus – we still see unfortunate souls suffering during this time of year.

At the gym, it’s a common sight – a gym-goer under the weather soldiering on with their usual workout, determined to not let their cold get the better of them.

But is it really a good idea to workout when we’re feeling rotten? It’s important that we know the facts about exercising when ill.


According to the experts at the American College of Sports Medicine, although undertaking moderate exercise most days of the week can help prevent the common cold, intense workouts during bouts of illness can do more harm than good.

ACSM Fellow David C. Nieman noted in a statement from the association that moderate exercise (i.e.30 minutes a day, on most if not all days of the week) actually lowers the risk of respiratory infections.

At the same time, prolonged, intense exercise can weaken the immune system and allow viruses to gain a foothold and spread.

In fact, recent research from the University of Pretoria in South Africa suggested that elite athletes need to work harder to remain healthy, as their immune systems are more stressed.

Looking at it from a practical angle, Finalist for PT of the Year 2015, and Fitness First Clubs’ fitness expert, Carly Tierney, gave the following advice.

“If you're suffering from fatigue, a loss of hydration through an upset stomach or are contagious, step away from the gym! Not only is it unsafe to be in there but you risk making other gym-goers ill, which is not cool,” she commented.


Our workout does affect our body’s capability of defending itself against invaders. Carly explained that the onset of sickness symptoms are the result of your body fighting the illness.

“Your body temperature may be raised and you will experience fever as your body fights the illness,” she added.

Carly explained that when ill, there is a general rule to follow – the ‘above the neck’ rule.

“Think: is my illness above or below my neck? So runny nose, sneezing or a cough, you should be fine. Just try keep those germs to yourself! But if you have aching muscles, an upset stomach, chest pain or congestion you really ought to be at home resting.”

Should you decide to hit the gym when under the weather, Carly advised that your workout needs to be altered accordingly.

“Train within your limitations as your immune system recovers. Start off at 50% and work up to 75%. It may take a couple of weeks to get back to your best; be patient and don't feel defeated.”

She reminded us that the body hasn't lost its strength or fitness, “you need to be kind to yourself and take it easy to begin with.”


In the spirit of looking after our health, prevention is better than cure, and for this reason the Prof Michael Gleeson and Dr Neil Walsh from the British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences provide some tips to avoid catching a cold this winter, in the BASES Expert Statement on Exercise, Immunity and Infection.

• Wash your hands regularly, before meals, and after direct contact with potentially contagious people and places, such as bathrooms.

• Use disposable paper towels and limit hand-to-mouth/nose contact when ill. Carry alcohol-based hand-washing gel with you.

• Do not share drinking bottles, cups, towels, etc. with other people.

• Wear appropriate outdoor clothing in inclement weather and avoid getting cold and wet after exercise.

• Wear flip-flops or similar footwear when going to the showers, swimming pool and locker rooms in order to avoid dermatological diseases.


Aside from a good exercise routine, which is proven to bolster the immune system’s performance, a healthy diet is of the utmost importance in order to keep your body’s defences strong.

But when the immune system is compromised, having the right diet is essential to getting back to full strength. Take chicken soup as an example - a study pointed out that the broth can ease the symptoms of a cold, making it a favoured choice amongst the sniffly.

Therefore, Carly suggested eating small amounts, often, and sticking to easy-to-prepare foods.

Her suggestions include:

- Egg on brown toast
- Oats
- Nuts
- Whole grain cereal
- Fat free yoghurts
Protein shakes
- Soups
- Smoothies

“Plenty of water will help to flush your system, while teas like ginger and peppermint can help to reduce feelings of nausea and also taste pretty nice,” she concluded.