Should You Exercise When You're Sick or Hurt?
How to know when you should power through or give your workout a rest
When you're under the weather with a cold or achy muscles or joints, it may be best to skip your regular workout. But it’s not always necessary.
Obviously, a severe injury requires rest, but for less serious ailments, a little activity may actually make you feel better. Here are some of the most common health issues you are likely to encounter and ways to exercise around them as well as when you should avoid working out:
You Feel a Cold Coming On
If you have mostly “head symptoms” like a scratchy throat, mild headache or runny nose, you can likely go ahead with your workout with a few adjustments, says Dr. Kristine Arthur, internal medicine physician with Orange Coast Memorial Medical Center, Fountain Valley, Calif.
“Avoid strenuous activities like sprints, a marathon, boot camp or heavy lifting,” she says. “Heavy exercise while sick can strain your heart.”
If you normally run, consider a light jog or brisk walk, preferably indoors during cold weather. “Pilates and yoga are usually fine, but avoid hot yoga, as you may become overheated,” Arthur says.
You Have a Sinus Infection
If you have anything more severe than a runny nose and suspect you may have a sinus infection, see a doctor before doing your regular exercise, Arthur says.
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“If you stress yourself with exercise and don’t get proper treatment for sinusitis, it can turn into something more serious, like pneumonia,” she says.
Be particularly careful if you have a history of asthma. Exercise can trigger bronchial spasm. Stop exercising if you hear yourself wheezing or feel you can’t catch your breath, Arthur says.
You Spike a Fever… and More
It’s best to stay home and avoid working out if you have “full body symptoms,” Arthur says. “This includes symptoms like muscle aches, chills, nausea, vomiting or diarrhea and particularly if you have a fever.”
Exercising with a fever of 100 degrees or higher puts you at risk for increasing your temperature even further.
“Never try to ‘sweat out’ a fever with exercise,” Arthur says. “This can put you at risk of dehydration. In general, listen to your body. If you start feeling worse while exercising – stop! You may make things worse and prolong the illness.”
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You Develop Elbow Tendonitis
Called tennis elbow or golfer’s elbow, depending on whether it’s on the outside of your elbow (tennis) or inside (golfer's), this syndrome makes it painful to shake hands, hold a racket or turn a wrench.
“Avoid any activity that triggers the pain, such as practicing backhand in tennis, painting or using a tool repetitively,” says Dr. David Geier, orthopedic surgeon in Charleston, S.C. “Upper body exercises that don’t recreate the pain should be alright to do.”
Supportive straps worn just below the elbow can also take stress off the affected area and can help you perform activities with less pain.
Your Wrists Ache
Wrist arthritis makes it painful to bear weight on your wrists and hands, such as while doing push-ups.
“The pushup places the wrist in full extension while the person transfers stress through the wrists,” Geier says. Avoid exercises that cause pain, or modify the move. For example, try push-ups on dumbbells (grasp them to enable your wrists to stay straight). Or wear wrist braces that limit the range of motion, which can help decrease pain during the exercise, Geier says.
It Hurts to Walk
Inflammation of a thick band of tissue, called the plantar fascia, that runs along the bottom of your foot and connects to your heel, is called plantar fasciitis. It’s common in runners, overweight individuals and in people who wear shoes without good support.
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“It is unclear if any activity is particularly harmful with plantar fasciitis,” Geier says. “The biggest problem is getting up from a chair and going straight into physical activity or waking up and moving around a lot.”
Plantar fascia- and Achilles stretching exercises first thing in the morning, and possibly several times a day, can help.
You Have General Aches and Pains
Waking up with achy muscles from simply doing more than your usual activities the day before can be eased with stretching or by using a foam roller.
“Use a foam roller to promote flexibility of your mid-back and stretch your pectoral muscles (across the front of your chest),” says Jesse Phillips, sports rehabilitation supervisor at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif. “If you have knee pain, using a foam roller followed by stretches can help improve the mobility of the hip, knee and ankle.”
Keep in mind the difference between the discomfort associated with muscles working hard and excessive strain being placed on joints/ligaments/tendons, Phillips says.
“Moving a joint or muscle to the point of mild stretch is typically acceptable, but moving through pain is not,” he said. “If you are concerned about the potential of the latter kind of pain, consult a physician or a physical therapist for an evaluation.”