Is It Ok to Exercise With a Cold?

During this time of year, whether or not to workout with a cold is a question that many people will be asking.
This is a debate I have with myself whenever I’m feeling sick. I know from past experience that my cold symptoms tend to lessen temporarily after working out, but part of me always worries that the energy spent exercising is energy that should be saved for the immune system to fight off the cold, making resting the better option. There has been very little research done on the subject to help make the decision easier, but the information that is available leans in favor of exercise.

I’m writing this post now because a couple of days ago I developed a sore throat and stuffy nose, the tale tell signs of the common cold. Thankfully my symptoms have been mild and I’ve gotten plenty of sleep the last couple of nights. Today, even though I’m not completely over the cold, I feel like I have enough energy to at least go for a run so I was looking to see what advice was out there. I came across two actual studies specifically looking at exercising with cold, both from the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.

This first study investigated whether an upper respiratory illness limits your ability to exercise. The researchers compared the results of breathing and exercise tests conducted on subjects infected with the virus most commonly responsible for colds against health controls. The study found that having a cold has no effect on lung function or exercise capacity.

The second study looked at how exercising with a cold effects the severity and duration of symptoms. Again, researchers tested subjects suffering from upper respiratory tract infections against healthy counterparts. The researchers found that exercising with a cold did not have an effect on symptoms or alter recovery time.

These studies suggest that exercise is generally safe when dealing with a cold. Exercise may not speed up your recovery, but it won’t lengthen the duration of the illness or cause symptoms to worsen either. Of course, these findings apply to only one variation of the common cold and may not extend to other illnesses, such as the flu. Aside from these two studies, the rest of the guidance regarding exercising with a cold I came across came from expert opinion articles. There is almost universal agreement among the various sources that mild to moderate exercise is fine when symptoms are limited to nasal congestion, sneezing or minor throat irritation. Infectious disease specialist Catherine Liu, MD states that:

Exercising with a cold or the flu is probably unlikely to cause complications if you do not have other medical problems. 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.

Edward R. Laskowski, M.D, a physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist from the Mayo Clinic, recommends abstaining from exercise if your symptoms extend “below the neck”, including chest congestion, hacking cough or upset stomach. He also advises against exercise you have a fever, fatigue, or widespread muscle aches. An underlying theme echoed by most medical professionals is to listen to your body. Rest if you’re feeling miserable, but don’t skip a scheduled workout on account of a simple cold.

So if you’ve decided to go ahead an exercise, which type of workout is best when you’re sick? The research studies cited early suggest there is no reason to decrease intensity or length of a workout because of a cold, but I think it’s reasonable to scale back a bit if you don’t feel up to your regular routine. I generally prefer to exercise outside when I’m sick, both to get some fresh air and as a courtesy to others. If you’re someone who has to workout at the gym, try to be mindful of other gym goers. Simple precautions such as covering your face when you cough or sneeze, hand washing, and wiping down equipment can go a long way to prevent spreading the virus.

edit: Hey guys, it's Dr. E... the contributor of this post is a former student of mine in PT school at DYC... one of my brighter ones... so bright in fact, he felt like he did not have to come to class as often as the rest of the poor saps listening to me lecture in my early days! James... it was good to get back in touch with you, just had to throw that in there!

Contributed by James Speck.


  1. Thanks Erson! Even though I didn't always make it to the lectures, I still knew you were a great instructor. I was excited to see that you were the mastermind behind one of my favorite therapy sites. Obviously you made some impact since I'm still listening to you all these years later.

  2. Thank you for contributing James! This was one of the most popular posts PA blog has had!


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