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Training Q&A: Should You Exercise When You’re Sick?

You’ve been killing it at the gym lately, and hate to miss a day—even though you know there’s a cold coming on. What's the harm? Our medical expert weighs in.

A sore throat, achy muscles and a runny nose can make you miserable, but if you still have the energy to exercise, should you? Aside from infecting everyone else at the gym, what's the real danger? The good news: fit people recover from illnesses quicker and experience milder symptoms than couch potatoes, according to a 2011 study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. Raul Seballos, M.D., vice-chair of the department of preventive medicine at the Cleveland Clinic, provides the following guidelines for exercising before, during and after a cold or flu.

Q: When you feel a cold or flu coming on, should you change your regular workout routine?

A: If you feel as if you're coming down with a garden-variety cold you can still exercise without significant limitations. If you begin to feel worse after your workout, however, cut back. Take a few days off or reduce your effort to 50 percent of your normal capacity; walk for 15 minutes instead of running for 30 minutes, do one set of lifting instead of five. Also keep in mind the above-the-neck rule: if your symptoms include a runny nose, dry cough or sneezing you should be fine to exercise. Rest if your symptoms are below the neck, such a chest congestion, muscle aches, upset stomach, etc.

Q: What should you do when you're in the midst of a cold or flu? (Does it help to "sweat out" a fever?)

A: Stay home if you have a fever, stomach symptoms or the flu. If you're wiped out with fatigue there's no reason to work out. Plus, you're contagious the first five to seven days. Rest allows your immune system to recover. Get to bed early and get extra sleep, drink plenty of fluids (no alcohol), take over-the-counter cold and flu medicines or ibuprofen as you recover.

Q: When should you resume your regular exercise routine after you've recovered?

A: Again, listen to your body. Colds typically last for a week to 10 days but it may take you two to three weeks to recover from the flu, depending on the severity. Don't go 100 percent the first three or four days. Start at 75 percent of your normal workout (for both cardio and weights) and increase gradually for the first week or so. If you try to go back too soon you may have a prolonged recovery phase. You may also be more short of breath if you're recovering from an upper respiratory infection.

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