Sweat it out, or stay at home?

Should You Workout When You’re Ill?

Written by Russ Howe PTI, and most recently updated 1 day ago.

4 min read

I’d rather poo a hedgehog than miss a few days at the gym, and you probably feel the same way.

So let’s talk about training during illness.

Lots of gym-goers believe that you should continue training through illness (some even believe it’ll help you recover faster, i.e. “sweat it out!”), and others recommend stopping training until you feel better.

It’s time to brush aside the broscience and get to the facts.

Can You Sweat Out A Cold?

should you workout when ill

I will say this only once:

You can not sweat out a cold.

I love training, and I also love not being ill, so if we could “sweat it out” then believe me, I’d run to the gym faster than a scarecrow in a tornado.

The reason this myth is still so popular is because lots of fitness professionals continue to follow outdated advice from the 1970s and 80s, when there wasn’t enough research on the topic to give a clear answer. It was originally believed that sweat consisted of toxins which are leaving the body, but we now know that sweat is actually just water, so it has no bearing on the recovery process.

However, exercise would release a bunch of feel-good endorphins (like it always does), so this may temporarily make you feel Lego Movie Awesome, but once they wear off the illness persists.


Expected Impact On Performance

should you exercise when ill

Notice the title of this article.

I didn’t ask “can you still train”, I asked “should you still train”.

The phrasing is super important, because us gym-folk are stubborn as fuck, so if the question is “can you still train” then the answer would always be yes! Heck, I’ve walked to my gym through a foot of snow in the dead of winter just to get my session in, so you’d better believe I’m not going to let a cold stop me from training.

However, in the immortal words of Jeff Goldblum:

“We were so preoccupied with whether we could, we didn’t stop to think if we should.”

You see, although the physiological process of building muscle is the same regardless of illness, it’s pretty unlikely that you’ll be able to create the necessary stimulus to maximize your results. Most people see their RPE (rate of perceived exertion) significantly drop when they’re suffering from an illness, so even if they manage to drag themselves to the gym, they just go through the motions.

Training while ill may also have a negative impact on your recovery time. Your body is already facing off against a dangerous enemy like Rambo in a field of Vietcong, so putting even more stress on your central nervous system by lifting weights could hinder the process.


How To Decide if You’re Too Ill To Workout

I recommend using the neck check system.

This came from a 1996 study published in the Journal of Athletic Training, where researchers recommend pinpointing the point of your symptoms to help determine if you can train. (1)

  • Below the neck (chest pains, coughing, shortness of breath, tightness, vomiting, etc).
  • Above the neck (sneezing, headache, etc).

If your symptoms are below the neck then you should avoid training. You would be very restricted with what you could do in the gym, so it’s best to rest until you feel back to normal. However, if your symptoms are above the neck you can probably still train, but you’ll likely need to reduce your normal intensity.

And finally, it’s worth considering the potential health risks you pose to your fellow gym members.

Nobody wants to be known as the inconsiderate cock-toboggan who erased half the gym population with flu (and we definitely don’t want another fucking lockdown), so my advice is to buy yourself some red Lucozade, climb inside a warm blanket, and post sad fitness memes until you feel better.

should you workout when ill

References:

  1. Weidner T. G., et al. Sport, exercise, and the common cold. J Athl Train (1996).

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I’m Russ. I’ve been a personal trainer since 2002, and I own russhowepti.com.

My job is to simplify fitness for my readers.

I send out free fitness tips to over 100,000 men and women every week, all in the same no-nonsense style as the article you’ve just read, so if you enjoyed reading it be sure to jump on my email list below.

One response to “Should You Workout When You’re Ill?”

  1. Fitoru mct avatar
    Fitoru mct

    I think it depends on how ill a person is. I never really thought about checking where symptoms are, that’s a fantastic piece of advice.

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