Health and exercise
Regular exercise is very important for many reasons, one being that it reduces the risk of suffering health problems such as high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. Inactivity and leading a sedentary lifestyle can, in fact, increase mortality – the World Health Organisation has estimated that approximately 2 million deaths a year can be attributed to physical inactivity.1
Incorporating a regular amount of exercise into your routine can not only improve your heart health, but may also improve your mood, strengthen your bones, and even support the immune system.
Should I exercise if I have a cold?
In general, a mild cold or a bout of sniffles should not have a significant impact on your ability to carry out exercise safely. Plus, as previously discussed, a moderate amount of exercise can actually have a positive impact on the immune system and, therefore, it may help you get over symptoms more quickly too.
However, if symptoms are more severe and you're suffering from a chesty cough, a sore throat or a fever then exercise is not such a great idea. At this point your body needs time to recover and it definitely won't get this if it's pushed into doing another round at the gym!
How does exercise affect the immune system?
Exercise can have a number of positive effects on the immune system, including the following:
- It slows down the release of stress hormones which can inhibit immune function
- It raises respiratory rate which can help flush out bacteria from the lungs and airways
- It raises the temperature of the body which can help fight infection by preventing the growth of bacteria
- It improves circulation and, since immune cells travel around the bloodstream, such activity will improve their ability to get to the site of infection.
In contrast, extreme sports, including intense exercise or activities completed for long periods at a time, may be less beneficial to take part in when suffering a bad cold. Research suggests that vigorous exercise can actually be quite debilitating for the immune system. This is because it can reduce levels of T cells and white blood cells which work to eliminate infection in the body.2
Exercising to help the immune system
In general, a moderately energetic lifestyle is extremely beneficial for the immune system and your overall health, as long as you don’t overdo it. Also, outdoor activity has been shown to be even more beneficial than equivalent amounts of exercise indoors, both physically (due to elements such as the weather, steep inclines and changing surfaces), as well as in regards to mood.3 A moderate program of exercise includes the following:
- Taking daily 20 to 30 minute walks
- Going to the gym every other day or, better still, swap your gym session for a run/cycle/walk outdoors – you can use natural obstacles to stretch and to provide resistance
- Cycling with your family or friends a few times a week
- Playing golf three times a week.
Problems which may occur when exercising with the cold
If you're training for the likes of a 10k, or perhaps you just love exercising, then it can be hard to lay down your trainers for a few days whilst you get over those cold symptoms. However, there are a few issues that can arise if you push your body too hard during periods of illness.
Shortness of breath – if your nose is blocked from a cold, this can reduce the amount of air that flows through it and, as a result, you may rely more on the mouth to breathe. This is less efficient than the usual breathing process and, therefore, if you engage in physical activity, it is likely that shortness of breath will become an issue a lot quicker than it normally would.
Difficulty breathing – the use of decongestants can often raise heart rate and, if you add physical activity on top of this, the combination can increase the amount of blood pumping to the heart, which may lead to shortness of breath and difficulty breathing.
Makes symptoms more severe – exercise can act as a stressor and so, even when you're healthy, it puts your body under strain. Therefore, if you try to exercise when you're poorly, there is a chance that it could make your cold symptoms worse.
When should you resume exercise after a cold?
If your symptoms begin to ease and you feel well enough to re-visit the gym, there are a few things to bear in mind before you go.
It is important not to rush getting back in your exercise routine. Make sure you allow a few days of good health to pass before starting up again. In addition, immediately after recovering from a cold, it may not be advisable to do vigorous cardiovascular activities as this may irritate and weaken the respiratory system.
Also, rather than jumping straight into your usual workout plan when you've been feeling poorly, it's best to take things easy. So, begin exercising at 20% of your usual ability and then each time you work out increase this by about 10% until you're back to normal. You may also want to ease off the exercise until you have finished any prescription or over the counter medications, or consult with your doctor if necessary.
It may be beneficial to exercise indoors, especially in cold weather, as this can increase stress on the body, which may cause symptoms to return. It is very important to listen to your body, if you still feel run down and just not 'right' after returning to exercise, ease off the workouts and rest until you feel better again.
Finally, there's a few rumours about that suggest you can 'sweat out a cold', however, there's no clear evidence to suggest this works. Therefore, instead of putting your body under unnecessary pressure, I'd recommend you put your feet up and relax with a soothing cup of Echinaforce Hot Drink.
Originally published 19 August 2015 (updated 9 December 2019)
What you said!
We recently ran a poll to find out which activity eases your cold symptoms. We've crunched the numbers and here are the results.
Results: Which activity eases your cold symptoms?
71% of you said that walking eases your cold symptoms. Walking is a great way to get moving if you don't feel up to intense exercise, and it may help improve your cold symptoms too!