Should I exercise with a cold?

Immune System Expert
Ask Dr. Jen Tan

01 November 2018

Health and exercise

The human body was designed to move and so it doesn’t take kindly to a sedentary lifestyle where there is little or no activity. From mental health problems to high blood pressure, inactivity has been linked with a whole range of health issues and it is even known to increase mortality - the World Health Organisation has, for example, estimated that approximately 2 million deaths a year can be attributed to physical inactivity. 

On the other hand, incorporating a regular amount of exercise into your routine decreases the chance of developing heart disease, it strengthens bones and it can even support the immune system.

What is the immune system?

The immune system is your body’s way of defending itself against cold and flu viruses so it pays to keep it in good working order!  This complex system has four main lines of defence:

  • Physical barriers such as skin, hair, mucous membranes and nasal hairs help to keep viruses out the body
  • Chemical barriers such as stomach acid help to get rid of viruses should they find their way into the body
  • If viruses start to harm the body then the cells under attack will release chemicals to attract immune cells. These immune cells known as macrophages then start mopping up the virus by engulfing it and spitting out the remains
  • If the virus puts up a hefty fight then T cells are called into action. These are also known as white blood cells and are part of the immune system. T cells activate B cells which lock onto a virus to kill it. Once the virus is killed the T cells remember how to get rid of it so that it won’t become an issue in the future. 

How does exercise affect the immune system?

First of all, 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 hamper 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 bacteria from growing there 
  • Exercise improves circulation and since immune cells travel around the bloodstream, such activity will improve their ability to get the scene of any invasion.  

So, exercise is just one of a number of things that can improve immune function however, extreme sports, including intense exercise or activities completed for long periods at a time, were less beneficial. Research suggests that this is quite debilitating for the immune system as it reduces T cells and white blood cells which, as I’ve already mentioned, go around the body getting rid of infected cells.

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.

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 our ability to carry out exercise safely. Plus, as I’ve just been discussing, a moderate amount of exercise can actually have a positive impact on the immune system so it might 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! 

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 number of issues that can arise if you try to battle on.

Severe shortness of breath – when the nose is blocked, as is often the case when you have a cold, the amount of air that flows through it is reduced and so we increasingly rely on the mouth to breath. This is less efficient than our usual system and as a result, if we engage in physical activity it’s likely that shortness of breath will become an issue quicker than would normally be the case. 

Difficulty breathing - decongestants can raise heart rate and so if you add physical activity on top of this, the combination can increase the amount of blood pumping to the heart leading 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 some amount of strain. Therefore, if you try to exercise when you’re poorly the chances are it’ll make 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. 

First of all, give a thought to your fellow gym-goers! If you still have the remnants of a cold then those around you will not want to be subject to constant sniffles and coughing. So, consider whether or not you really are ready to go back – an extra couple of days off could be just what your body needs to get back to normal. If you are determined to get back on the treadmill but are still feeling a little under the weather, there are a few things you can do to prevent the spread of germs:

  • Visit outside peak hours
  • Apply hand sanitizer regular
  • Clean down gym equipment after use.

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. 

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.

This contains fresh Echinacea which supports the immune system, whilst the addition of black elderberry not only gives the drink a delicious fruity taste, but adds antiviral properties too. This is much preferable to slogging it out at the gym whilst you’re ill, is it not? 



2 Peake JM. Exerc Immunol Rev 2002; 8: 49-100

3 Pretty J. Int J of Env Health Res 2005; 15 (5): 319-337 


Originally published 19 August 2015 (updated on 1 November 2018)

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For relieving the symptoms of colds and flu. Also in 50ml & 100ml drops.
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