Have the Flu or a Cold? Should You Exercise?

A poll in the August 2013 issue of Caring Right at Home yielded the good news that more than half of our readers exercise regularly. But what if you're sniffling and sneezing?

Maybe you put off your flu shot this year, so you're wondering whether you've got the common cold or seasonal influenza. And should you use your illness as an excuse to slack off on your regular workout? It's tempting … yet exercise keeps us healthier, right?  We "push through" sometimes when we don't really feel like it. Is this one of those times?

Professor Karin Richards of the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia explains that this isn't a simple question. She says that working out when we're not feeling well can actually do more harm than good by putting stress on our immune systems.

Richards, who is acting chair of the Department of Kinesiology, says that your symptoms can help you decide whether to head for the treadmill or the couch. "There is a fine line between a minor cold and the flu, and it's important for individuals to stay in tune with their bodies. A person's body is stressed when fighting the infection, so placing additional stress through exercise only suppresses the immune system even more."

She offers this rule of thumb:  "Those who experience above-the-neck symptoms such as stuffy noses and sneezing are generally fine to continue their exercise routine. However, those with symptoms below the neck such as a fever, nausea and muscle aches are urged to stay in bed and recover."

If you have a cold and your symptoms are mild, Richards suggests continuing exercising, but lowering the intensity of your workout. For example, if you are a runner, go for a walk instead. She also suggests that yoga could be a good activity, as gentle stretches can relieve congestion and pressure. Richards shares that she herself fights sinus pressure this way.

Richards also reminds us to be courteous and protect others by working out at home or outdoors rather than at a gym when we might be contagious.

Once you're feeling better, remember that prevention is the best policy when it comes to colds or the flu—and exercise strengthens the immune system and promotes good health in so many ways. Even though you’ve had to curtail your workout for a few days, this is usually only a temporary setback. No matter what your age, an appropriate exercise program is beneficial.

If you have questions about the flu or your exercise routine, be sure to talk to your healthcare provider.

Learn More

Is it a cold or the flu? The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases offers a quick diagnostic tool for consumers.

Visit www.Flu.gov to find information from a consortium of government agencies about flu season 2014-15, including specific guidelines for older adults and those who provide care for senior loved ones.

What should seniors know about vaccine recommendations for 2014-15? The National Council on Aging's Flu + You campaign offers guidance and information on flu care and the new higher-dose vaccination that may be recommended if you are older than 65.


Right at Home, Inc. is a national organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for those we serve. We fulfill that mission through a dedicated network of locally owned providers of in home care services.