Should I exercise when I'm sick?

I think John has passed some sort of flu-bug to me this week. Sheesh. And I thought that once I stopped teaching, I would stop getting the back-to-school bugs. No such luck this year. So, I’ve been asking myself that age-old question – should I exercise when I’m sick? How sick is too sick? How can you tell the difference between too sick to exercise and just being a bit lazy?

I’ve always lived by the old Above the Neck/Below the Neck rule, though I have no idea where I first heard it. An old body building magazine at the college gym most likely. Here’s the gist:

If the symptoms are above the neck – and minor (things like headache, runny nose, sinus congestion, ticklish throat, teary eyes) I  exercise EASILY – low moderation – and in the fresh air if possible.

If the symptoms are below the neck – (fever, sore throat, stomach ache, nausea, body aches, chest congestion, coughing, etc.) I take the day off.

The rule has pretty much worked as a guideline for me. It’s let me know when to take it easy, when to lay off completely, and how intensely to ramp up the training after a bout of the flu. But this time, my symptoms are all over the map. I  feel fine one minute, awful the next (exhausted, fever, sore throat, stomach-ache, etc.). Plus, I’m tired of taking it easy. After nursing a sprained ankle that’s finally on the mend, I’m ready to get moving, people.

So, clearly, I’m not in a good place to make a decision. If I’m rebelling against my old Below the Neck protocol, I need some more reinforcement. So, I decided to develop a couple more checks to help me answer the should I exercise when I’m sick question.

1. Listen to your body

I mean really listen. If you really are exhausted (it feels different from lazy) that’s your body telling you to rest. So REST. Remember, time to rest and recover is just as important to your physical health as your actual work out. Respect your body’s needs and give it time and space to heal. (This seems to be one of the top three lessons I am here to learn this lifetime, so if you have a tip to share, please enlighten me in the comments section below).

2. Take it slow

If you still aren’t sure how you’re feeling, or if you just really need to move (this is what happens to me), give yourself 5-10 minutes of LIGHT activity. Stretch. Walk. Drop into a couple of yoga poses and see how they feel. If you feel better 5 minutes in than you did when you started, keep moving. Check in again at 10 minutes. If you’re worn out after 5 minutes, pat yourself on the back for listening to your body and go rest.

3. Eat and hydrate

I tend to stop eating, drinking, and taking vitamins when I’m sick. All of which only serve to make me weaker. Be sure you’re taking in some sort of nourishment regularly. You may not think you need it, but your body is working to fight off this bug. Give it some help.

4. Check in with your doctor.

The only thing I hate more than going to the doctor and hearing bad news, is going to the doctor and hearing how this thing just needs to “run its course.” But if you’re feeling bad and things aren’t improving, a doctor visit might be a good idea.

The bottom line when it comes to answering the question should I exercise when I’m sick is be kind to yourself. Take care of yourself, and come back slowly. Drop the intensity a bit and give yourself some space to recuperate. You’ll be stronger in the end.

If you’re feeling good while others around you are fighting off a bug, please share your tips and tricks for staying healthy in the comments section below.


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