WORKING OUT WHILE SICK: SHOULD YOU TRAIN OR REST?

working out while sick

Having just spent over a week battling a nasty cold followed immediately by a rough two-day bout with food poisoning, I figured now was an appropriate time to write this blog post.

What is the best approach to take when it comes to working out while sick? Is it okay to continue with your weight training and cardio routine, or should you simply stay home and rest?

Although most people prefer black and white answers to these sorts of questions, this one is definitely a very “gray area” subject matter, and there are a couple of important reasons why…

What Exactly Do You Mean By “Sick”?

working out when sick

The first reason why this question is so difficult to answer is because the term “sick” is very broad and can potentially describe a huge range of different ailments.

Is it a cold? Stomach flu? Fever? Food poisoning? Mad cow disease?

Whether or not you should workout while sick highly depends on precisely what sort of “sickness” you’re dealing with in the first place.

For example, a heavy cough and fever is going to be a lot more stressful on your body than a light headache and stuffy nose will, and this will play a big role in determining whether you should go ahead with your workout or not.

What Type Of Workout Are You Performing?

workout style

The second thing to factor into the equation is what type of workout you’re scheduled for.

Is it a high volume leg workout or just a moderate volume shoulder and arm workout? Is it a steady incline walk on the treadmill or 10 rounds of high intensity sprint intervals?

The amount of effort you’ll need to exert and the resulting stress that will be placed on your body will also highly influence what your best course of action will be.

Performing some bicep curls and tricep extensions with a mild cold is a much different story than performing heavy squats and Romanian deadlifts with a wheezing cough and sore throat.

Practical Recommendations For Working Out When Sick

gym while sick

As you can see, the question of working out while sick is a very difficult one to answer simply because there are so many possible variables that come into play.

A lot of it will just come down to listening to your body, assessing how you feel, and then weighing it off against the intensity/duration of the workout that lies ahead. This is something that largely comes with experience.

Here are a few basic guidelines that I’d give when it comes to working out while sick…

If you’re dealing with a common cold with typical “cold symptoms” but otherwise feel that you have the energy and motivation to train, it’s probably okay to go ahead with it.

Personally, if I’m just dealing with things like a light cough, mild headache or stuffy nose, I’ll generally continue with my workout as planned as long as I feel otherwise physically okay.

Some studies have actually shown that as long as the overall intensity and duration is kept moderate, those dealing with a common cold can actually experience an improvement in their symptoms by exercising.

If you’re dealing with more than a cold and are experiencing more severe “total body symptoms” such as a fever, aches, chills or stomach issues, I’d highly suggest skipping the gym and giving yourself some rest.

Keep in mind that when you’re sick, your immune system is already under stress and is pooling its resources together to fight that sickness off.

Introducing even more stress in the form of weight training and cardio is likely going to do you more harm than good. Your body likely won’t be able to recover from the workout as effectively, and it could prolong your sickness even further.

Besides, if you really are experiencing these types of symptoms then it’s doubtful that you’ll even want to train in the first place.

If you’re “on the fence” and aren’t quite sure what you’re dealing with but feel as though you could train, one option is to just test out the waters and begin your workout to see how you feel.

If once you get going you find that you’re feeling particularly drained and that things just aren’t quite right, you can simply discontinue the workout altogether or scale back the volume/intensity.

On the other hand, if you begin the workout and are feeling fine in terms of strength and energy levels then you can simply continue with your regular workout as planned.

The above 3 scenarios are just a general set of recommendations that you can follow, but again, the best thing you can do when it all comes down to it is to simply listen to your body.

I think if most people are truly honest then they can probably feel for themselves whether going to the gym while sick is really a good idea or not, and your best bet is to trust that gut feeling.

If You Do Need Time Off, Remember That It’s No Big Deal

bodybuilding rest

If it turns out that you do need to skip a few workouts and take some time to recover, keep in mind that this really isn’t anything to stress out about in the big picture.

Missing one or even two weeks of training is not going to have any serious negative impact on your progress, especially if you’re able to keep your nutrition reasonably on point during that time.

Yes, your physique probably will “flatten out” a bit and you’ll lose a bit of fullness and definition, but this is simply the result of decreased water and glycogen storage in the muscles and is not a result of an actual loss of muscle mass itself.

Once you return to training you’ll find that this bounces back very quickly, so don’t panic if you look in the mirror a few days after being sick and it appears as though you’ve “lost all your gains”. It’s simply not the case.

It’s also possible that you may experience a very slight decrease in strength, though this depends on how much time you took off, what sort of sickness you were dealing with and what your nutrition was like during the layoff.

In any case, a drop in strength is primarily the result of neural adaptations as opposed to a decrease in actual muscle, and this will also return to normal very quickly once you resume your workouts.

What exactly should you do during your time away from the gym?

If it turns out that you can’t workout while sick and that you do need to take a rest, simply try to consume around your maintenance calories and get in a reasonable balance of macronutrients just as you were doing before the sickness hit you.

On the other hand, if you’re dealing with a type of sickness that significantly reduces your appetite or makes it hard to keep foods and liquids down, then just go with the flow and don’t stress out about it.

Simply rest and relax and realize that getting sick is an inevitable part of your fitness journey, and that no one is immune to it.

You’re never going to experience perfectly linear progress in any area of life, and ups and downs are guaranteed to happen along the way.

Even a week or two out of the gym in addition to poor diet is still not a big deal in the long run, and you’ll find that your overall muscle size and strength returns very quickly once you’re back in the gym anyway.

Don’t Forget About Your Fellow Gym-Goers Either

As a final note, don’t forget to take other people into consideration as well.

If you go to the gym while sick and are hacking away, wiping your nose and touching all of the equipment in the process, don’t forget that you’re putting everyone else there at risk too.

If you found this article helpful, make sure to take my physique quiz below to discover the very best training and nutrition program for your specific body type, goals and experience level...

Take the physique quiz