Exercising when ill: is it advised?

Exercising when ill: is it advised?

There is a lot of confusion about whether it is okay to exercise when you are ill. When you’ve been consistent with your fitness routine, you might be tempted to push through and get the workout done, but is this something to strive for?

Should you exercise when ill?

General advice is that exercise when ill is okay as long as symptoms are above the neck.

Here is a list of instances you want to avoid exercise


  • If you have chest congestion. And if you’re coughing up phlegm, avoid exercise – once your symptoms have passed, exercise can help you get back to full health.
  • Fever (a normal temperature is around 37°C) – In the unlikely case you need convincing not to exercise with a fever, working out with a fever is likely to make it worse and increase your chances of becoming severely dehydrated. You’re also at higher risk of injury because when you have a fever your muscles are weaker, your cardiovascular system isn’t working as well and your coordination is impaired.
  • Tummy troubles, including nausea and diarrhea – exercising will almost certainly make you feel worse and again, increase your risk of becoming dehydrated
  • Flu – symptoms include chills, body aches, headache, fatigue
  • Migraine – exercise can be a great way to prevent migraine but once you’re having an attack exercise is likely to make the pain worse.

Keep in mind that if you are exercising in a public space you are putting people around you as you inevitably spread germs. This is hard to avoid even if you avoid touching your face and wash your hands frequently. Exercise when ill is better done at home or in a spacious outdoor area where there isn’t anyone in your immediate vicinity, such as a park field. Remember that some of us have extremely compromised immune systems and what might be a mild cold for you could be extremely dangerous for someone else.

Depending on the kind of illness you are facing, health risks can increase if you are sick with other medical conditions such as asthma or hypertension (high blood pressure), or are pregnant. If you live with a long-term health condition, take extra care and consider consulting your GP if you’re unsure whether it is safe to exercise.

What happens when you exercise when ill?

In really mild cases of sickness, above the neck, light, short periods of exercise, such as a mild cold or nasal congestion, exercise could help! In this case, exercise can be helpful because it helps clear nasal congestion. When you exercise your heart rate increases – the number of beats your heart makes per minute, as well as your stroke volume – the amount of blood your heart pumps per beat, to increase. This is so that your muscles can get enough blood while they contract harder and faster than usual. The effect of this is an increase in overall blood circulation which helps relieve sinus pressure.

Many people find they feel less congested after moving their bodies. Light exercise while ill could also help you feel better by improving your mood. However, please make sure you are fully recovered before returning to your usual routine. Lots of examples of alternative exercise and exercise modification are given below.

Also, there is research to show that exercise, especially exercise outdoors, has a positive effect on the immune system, aiding in your recovery.

Exercises you can do while ill

If your symptoms are above the neck and you want to get moving, here is what you need to know.
High-intensity exercise when ill is unlikely to be a good idea however mild your sickness is. It is certainly not a time to push your limits. Your body is combatting whatever bacteria, virus, or malfunction it is dealing with and so you don’t want to add extra strain.

Something else to consider is that one of the most important things you need to do when you are ill is to stay hydrated, and exercise increases the risk of dehydration. In this case, it could make your illness worse. Be gentle so your body can do its thing. Remember to keep sipping before, during, and after your workout. The last thing you need right now is to become dehydrated!

You probably want to exercise for a shorter period too. Consider opting for some gentle yoga, a walk, or a simple bodyweight exercise and stretching routine. Avoid weight training, fast-paced movements, high-impact exercises, plank work, and anything that requires you to be in a plank position (such as push-ups). Planks are strenuous for our bodies causing blood to rush to your head and might make symptoms worse. Modify exercises to make them easier when appropriate.

personal training for women

Here are some ways to make your workouts easier

  • Reduce the weight. If you’re using weights like dumbbells or kettlebells, go lighter than usual.
  • Limit the range of motion. For example, if you’re doing squats, you can go half as low with your hips as you usually would, then come back up!
  • Use equipment to assist. For example, if you’re doing lunges, you can hold onto a chair or wall for support.
  • Decrease the reps or set. Do fewer sets than you usually would or do fewer reps within each set. For example, if you usually do 3 sets of 10 of an exercise, you could do 2 sets of 10 or 3 sets of 6, depending on how you’re feeling. If you tend to do circuit training for 40-second intervals, you could try 20 or even 15 seconds intervals instead.
  • Move slowly! Aside from reducing the volume of the workout, you can also move extra slowly. Set your environment up in a way that encourages you to do this. Play slower, chiller music than you usually would, have soft lighting, and light a candle!
  • Choose easy stretches.

Exercising with menstrual symptoms

Living and exercising by your menstrual cycle is quite a hot topic right now. Some people say you should rest on your period and peak intensity around ovulation, but the bottom line is that you should listen to your body and do what feels best. Exercising will also help regulate your mood by releasing endorphins and providing an outlet for stress.

If you experience intense PMS symptoms such as menstrual cramps, lethargy, breast soreness, and uncomfortable bloating, some gentle movement tailored for these symptoms might help. Movements that allow you to relax your pelvic floor and hips, increase blood flow in general, and are not too strenuous on your core could be a pleasurable, healthy way to show yourself some extra love and self-care at this time. 

Exercise relieves cramps because it triggers the release of beta-endorphins, also known as “human morphine”, an analgesic (pain relief) agent produced in the body. Exercise also helps because it enables your body to break down prostaglandins, chemicals released during menstruation, that cause muscle contractions/period cramps, much faster than at rest.


Exercising with menstrual symptoms

  • Light, shorter periods of exercise when your symptoms are ‘above the neck’ could be beneficial
  • The most important thing is that you listen to your body
  • Make sure you’re not putting other people at risk if you choose to exercise while ill
  • There are gentle alternatives to your usual workouts (like walking and gentle yoga) and lots of ways to modify your usual workouts


Written By Bea: Female fitness expert at MotivatePT – Reps Level 3 Qualified / Pre & Post Natal

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