Benefits and risks of exercising with a cold

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It is widely known that exercise increases the body’s immune response and improves overall body functions, including improved heart and lung health. Recent studies show that “moderate intensity” exercise may also decrease the likelihood of developing a cold due to increased production of white blood cells, which assist in fighting infections1. Moderate intensity exercise includes activities such as walking, jogging (over short distances or at a slower pace than usual), and yoga2.

Although it may seem almost detrimental to wear the body out as it is fighting off an illness, it is reported that light to moderate exercise is actually helpful to rid the sinuses of congestion and open up the airways. Increased circulation from exercise will also assist with diffusing white blood cells throughout the body.

Typically, exercise is encouraged when symptoms are located “above the neck”:

  • sneezing
  • sinus pressure
  • stuffy nose
  • minor sore throat

Exercise is generally discouraged when symptoms are felt “below the neck”:

  • chest congestion
  • hacking cough
  • nausea/vomiting
  • fever
  • fatigue
  • muscle aches3

In any case, everyone is different and it is essential to listen to your body before, during and after a workout4.

Typically, you should talk to your doctor before you exercise, because there are other conditions that may be exacerbated with the body’s responses to these demands. Exercise raises your heart rate (as do some cold medicines) and may cause shortness of breath and difficulty breathing. Intense exercise may also over-stress your body and slow down recovery, especially when the cold presents with a fever5, another reason to check with your doctor and be aware of where the symptoms present.

Taking note of any exacerbation of symptoms is of particular importance as well. These may include the following:

  • increased congestion
  • lightheadedness/dizziness
  • difficulty breathing
  • chest pain/tightness6

Team activities and stations or classes that involve several people or pieces of equipment are not recommended, as it is very easy to spread bacteria to another person. For any activity, even if it is part of a regular routine, decrease the degree, distance, or length of time while you are sick to get the health benefits without completely wearing your body out. When continuing regular activities, such as biking or jogging, pay attention to the weather: if it is raining or windy, this may cause worsening of a runny nose, difficulty breathing, and a chilled body. Swimming can be either beneficial or harmful, depending on the severity of symptoms and the type of water (saltwater vs. chlorinated pool). Some find swimming refreshing, and it may be helpful in washing away pollen or other allergens.7

It is comforting for a lot of people to know that sickness does not have to hold them back from staying active and might even help in the recovery process. There are limiting factors, and medical providers should be consulted beforehand, especially if symptoms are more severe; however, it is possible to continue a healthy lifestyle even when you are not at your peak.

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