Research suggests that the answer isn’t a straightforward yes, but yes nonetheless. As long as you take a few yes-buts to heart, chances are that you can still exercise with a head cold without negative effects, and may even benefit from it. Here’s the scoop.
Prevention first: exercise reduces illnesses
According to one study, regular exercise increases illness-fighting immune cells between 50 and 300 percent. Other research shows that performing moderately intense exercise regularly will specifically reduce how many colds you will get. Another study showed that the female test subjects got fewer colds when they regularly performed moderate-intensity exercise.
No bones about it – your odds of staying healthy improve with regular exercise. The one caveat with this – When your exercise falls into the category of "too much" or "too intense," you may actually increase the likelihood of getting a cold. When you are under any kind of stress, your immune system is negatively affected. Studies have shown that athletes who perform vigorous exercise – a physical stress to the body – without taking any down time for recovery increase their susceptibility to colds and flus. The intense, prolonged exercise can lower white blood cell count, suppressing immunity and increasing the likelihood of upper respiratory infection.
When is it okay to exercise while sick?
- Test subjects with a cold virus had no reduced lung function, metabolic responses, or exercise capacity compared to those with no cold virus.
- Test subjects with colds who exercised experienced no increase in their cold symptoms compared to test subjects with colds who rested.
- In some cases, test subjects felt better as a result of exercising.
- Listen to your body!
When exercising with cold symptoms makes you feel worse, reduce the intensity of your exercise or give it a rest altogether.
- Head colds only!
If your cold symptoms are above the neck, such as sneezing, minor sore throat, or runny nose, it's probably okay. But if your symptoms include chest congestion, fever, or body aches, you may actually have a more serious chest cold or even pneumonia. Plus, the kinds of viruses that bring on chest cold symptoms can engender heart muscle inflammation, also known as myocarditis – a potentially life-threatening condition.
- Don't exercise with a fever!
Exercise will raise your body temperature. So does having a fever. The high body temperature from combining exercise with a fever can negatively affect coordination and balance, increasing risk of injury and potentially leading to more serious medical conditions, such as heat stroke, pneumonia, or heart damage. Read more on this.
- Stop immediately with any of these symptoms!
If you experience shortness of breath, increased congestion, increased wheezing or coughing, dizziness, balance problems, chest pressure or tightness, or difficulty breathing, stop immediately and see a doctor.
- Be cautious with cold medications!
Certain decongestants increase your heart rate, as does exercise itself. Doing both can over-stress your heart.
- See a doctor if you have health issues! All the research implying that you can go ahead and exercise with a cold assumes you are of normal or optimal health. If you have any existing health issues, such as high blood pressure, heart issues, or obesity, then your body may not be able to handle the combined strain of a suppressed immune system with continuing exercise. See your doctor before combining the two.