Should You Exercise When Ill? This Is How To Know If You Are Too Sick To Work Out

Do you know the 'neck rule'? 💪

When you’re down in the dumps with a cold, flu or general achey tiredness, the majority of us will want to snuggle down with a duvet and not set foot in a gym.

But what about when you’re on the cusp? That fine line between thinking you might get ill and wondering whether to just work through it?

We wanted to know whether going to the gym can help or hinder a workout and whether we should just avoid it altogether.

So if you’re in a conundrum about whether your gym routine needs to be put on hold while you fully recover, keep reading.

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What are the signs and symptoms we are too ill to work out?

Dr Dan Robertson, a GP and medical officer at Push Doctor said the “neck rule” is the best place to start.

“Generally, if your symptoms are anywhere from the neck down, there’s not much benefit in forcing yourself to work out,” he explained.

Dr Eleanor Atkins from Bupa UK agreed, explaining: “If you have a runny nose, headache or a scratchy/sore throat, then you should be fine to work out as long as you take it slow.

“If your symptoms are below the neck (coughing, fever, stomach pain, diarrhoea, dizziness or aching) then you should take time to rest and recover.

“This is just a guideline, but you should always listen to your body and understand when it needs rest and recovery time.”

What happens to you your body if you do work out when you’re sick?

Ben Fletcher, fitness and conditioning expert at Push Doctor and member of the UK Strength and Conditioning Association (UKSCA) said your concentration will suffer and this can, in turn, make exercises very dangerous.

“If you’re using gym equipment, your technique will suffer and you risk putting your body in an unsafe position,” he said. “It’s also likely that you’ll find it hard to hydrate properly if you’re unwell. Working out while you’re dehydrated carries all sorts of risks, including injuries to your soft tissue.

“Imagine if you left a piece of meat to dry out and then tried to stretch it. It’s likely to tear much more easily, and this is the case with your muscles too.”

Dr Lorenzo Masci, a sports and exercise medicine consultant said there is evidence to suggest that exercising when unwell can also make you more ill, for longer. He said it can “prolong the course of infection and increase the risks of developing complications.”

“Occasionally, these complications can be very serious especially if the infection involves the heart (myocarditis) or lungs (pneumonia),” he said.

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So what should I bear in mind if I go to the gym with “neck up” symptoms?

It’s important to remember that the gym is full of other people, meaning you could easily pick up another infection by touching equipment that someone else has touched, as well as passing your infection onto others.

“Public gyms can also be full of germs and when you’re ill it’s more important than ever to wipe down machines and equipment before and after you use them to minimise the risk of picking up another infection,” said Dr Atkins.

When it comes to working out, Dr Masci said to exercise at 50% of your usual intensity until your symptoms settle. Sticking to these lower intensity activities and avoiding heavy strength work or sprinting will lower your risk of picking up an injury.

Fletcher suggested you could use this time to get some benefit from recovery-based activities such as foam rolling.

He added: “Also make sure you’re properly hydrated. This will reduce the risk of injury, improve brain function and help your body recover faster from your illness.”

I don’t know what to do, I’m on the cusp. Help!

“If you’re unsure, listen to your body and know what you’re capable of,” said Dr Atkins. “Often a day of resting and allowing your body the chance to recover will help you to feel better and stronger the next day, which means you can achieve more.

“Missing one or two workouts isn’t going to stop you from reaching your fitness goals, and you can achieve more when you’re well rested and feeling better. Don’t forget even top Olympic athletes have days off when they need to recover.”

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