Is Exercise Good for the Common Cold?

Whether you should exercise when you're sick depends on what your body is telling you.

Medically Reviewed
is exercise good for the common cold
If you’re thinking about exercising with a cold, there are several things to consider – such as the severity of your symptoms and whether you have a fever.Getty Images

To work out or not to work out? For someone dealing with a common cold, that is often the question. Although powering your way through a run or a salsa class can make you feel great on a regular day, it may not seem like the best idea when you have the sniffles and a cough. The important thing is to stay flexible with your exercise routine.

The Common Cold and Exercise

“Research has shown that when someone has a cold virus, in general, it is safe to exercise,” says Leah Mooshil Durst, MD, an internist at NorthShore University HealthSystem in Chicago, Illinois. “There is no difference in how the body responds to exercising when it is fighting a cold virus. Some of the participants in a study even said they felt better from their exercise session in spite of their colds, but this did not help them get better faster.”

Infectious disease specialist Catherine Liu, MD, associate professor of clinical medicine in the division of infectious diseases at the University of California, San Francisco, agrees.

“Exercising with a cold or the flu is probably unlikely to cause complications if you do not have other medical problems,” says Dr. Liu. “However, if you have an underlying medical condition such as asthma, heart disease, or other medical illnesses, you should check with your doctor first, as exercise may worsen an underlying medical problem.”

Moderate exercise won't prolong your illness or make your symptoms worse, but it may not shorten them, either. One possible benefit of exercising with a cold: If you're generally well-hydrated, a workout can break up congestion, notes Dr. Durst. However, your congestion could worsen if you're dehydrated.

When You Can Exercise With a Cold

“When you are sick, the most important thing to do is listen to your own body,” advises Liu. You can exercise if:

  • You want to and have the energy.
  • Your symptoms are mild, such as just a runny nose.
  • You have been fever-free for 24 hours.

When You Shouldn’t Exercise With a Cold

Avoid exercise when:

  • You have a fever.
  • Your body aches.
  • You have a cough.
  • You have flu symptoms, such as vomiting, diarrhea, or rash.
  • You have a cold along with chronic health concerns, such as heart disease or asthma.

While you may think you can sweat out a cold, Liu advises against it. If anything, the opposite is true. “Sweating does not help get rid of a cold,” she says. “Rest and staying hydrated by drinking liquids are important in helping you get better.”

Don’t Forget Cough and Common-Cold Etiquette

Gyms can turn into hotbeds of infection if people don’t take the right precautions when they're working out with a cold. If you do go to the gym when you're sick or recovering, mind your sick-person manners:

  • Cover your mouth with a facial tissue when you sneeze or cough, or cough into your shoulder — not your bare hands, which are more likely to spread germs.
  • Wipe off any equipment you use.
  • Throw used facial tissues in the trash.
  • Wash your hands with soap and water or use an alcohol-based sanitizer before and after your workout.

“Proper respiratory etiquette and hand hygiene are essential to prevent the spread of disease,” emphasizes Liu.

When Being Sick and Exercise Collide

“A person should always seek medical attention if during exercise they experience chest pain or [a feeling like] indigestion, difficulty catching their breath, wheezing, feeling faint, worsening body aches, or cola-colored urine,” advises Durst.

If you can't bear to take time off from your fitness routine to nurse a cold, it won’t hurt you to throw on your shoes and workout clothes. Just listen to your body, and oblige if you think you need a rest day. You’ll be back on the treadmill soon enough.