I am Sick! Should I Exercise? How about my Heart?

So, I am currently on day 5 of my “Man Cold”. My symptoms include fever, sore throat, cough and congestion. These are pretty standard symptoms for a viral upper respiratory tract infection.  I must say, however, that this one has been a little tougher than most I have experienced.

I am getting very tired of sitting around, watching TV and searching the internet. So, because I have not been exercising I am starting to feel stiff, my back is aching and I am not mentally and emotionally as healthy as I usually am. My kids describe me as grumpy! I definitely am less tolerant than I usually am when I exercise regularly.

This begs the question, should you exercise when you are sick?

What is the definition of exercise? It is physical activity that is planned, structured, and repetitive for the purpose of conditioning any part of the body.  To improve fitness, exercise must be at an intensity that stresses the body to adapt and get stronger.

So, is it good to stress the body when it is already stressed by the virus or bacteria or whatever the immune system is fighting? The short answer is “no”, especially if you are quite sick. Best advice is to stay hydrated, eat healthy foods and get your rest. This way your immune system can have the nutrients and energy it needs to do its job.

Am I saying that all you should do when you are sick is lay around? Well the short answer to this question is “probably not”. If you are sick to the point that doing anything is a struggle then definitely you should focus on resting and recovering. But, if you are not overly sick or on the mend then some activity would be a good idea.

Exercise, by definition should not be your focus. Stressing your body with higher intensity physical activity will likely make your recovery go backwards because the immune system cannot keep up its battle and the infection gets worse. However, doing some low intensity physical activity may actually help your recovery.

Our bodies are meant to move. By doing absolutely nothing you may stay sick longer and are even at higher risk of developing a new problem. It is important if you are able to move then you should do something. Get some easy chores done. Go for an easy stroll around the block to get some fresh air and Vitamin D. Of course, if it is really cold or really hot out then you should stay indoors because that may over stress you. Doing some low intensity physical activity has a long list of benefits. It can help to maintain some muscle tone and joint flexibility and prevent things like low back pain. It also helps keep your gastrointestinal system working optimally and reduce your chances of developing constipation.

One other huge benefit isn’t physical. When we move we are mentally and emotionally fitter. We are less likely to be depressed or anxious. We also are much more tolerant of others and generally more pleasant to be around. As my kids say, “Dad, go for a walk, then you will be less grumpy”.

In short, listen to your body. If you are really sick, then rest and recover. If you are not that sick or are on the mend then try and do some low level activity. Save the planned, structured exercise for when you are fully recovered. Also remember that when you do get back to the exercise you will have to do a little less than you did in your last workout prior to getting sick especially if you had an extended time away due to your illness.

I haven’t really addressed the issue of exercising while you are sick if you have heart disease. I will do that now. Everything that I have discussed applies to you as well. Listening to your body is critical. Don’t exercise if you are really sick but do some light activity if you are not too sick or feeling better.

Here are the exceptions. If you are getting chest pain, shortness of breath or dizziness that you don’t normally experience, you should stop what you are doing and seek medical attention. If the symptoms don’t resolve in a few minutes then you should call 911 or go to the emergency room. If they completely resolve within minutes then you should cease activity until you see your doctor at the earliest opportunity.  If the symptoms return then call 911 or go to the emergency room.

If you normally experience angina but you are now experiencing your usual angina with less exertion then take some more time to recover from your illness before doing activity. Angina that does not resolve with rest or with medicine or angina at rest is still a reason to go to the emergency room.

If you have heart failure then make sure you monitor yourself for changes in your heart failure symptoms. The following recommendations for heart failure are based on the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada’s guidelines found in their book “Living with Heart Failure. You should see your doctor if:

  • you gain more that 4 pounds in 2 days or 5 pounds in a week
  • you have vimiting and/or diarrhea that lasts more than 2 days
  • feel more short of breath than usual
  • have increased swelling in your feet, ankles, legs or stomach
  • you have a dry, hacking cough
  • you feel more tired and don’t have the energy to do daily activities
  • you feel lightheaded or dizzy, and this is new for you
  • you feel uneasy, like something doesn’t feel right
  • you find it harder to breathe while you are lying down
  • you find it easier to sleep by adding pillows or sitting up in a chair

You should go to emergency or call 911 of:

  • you are struggling to breathe
  • your shortness of breath does not go away while sitting still
  • you have a fast heartbeat that does not slow down when you rest
  • you have chest pain that dies not go away with rest or with medicine
  • you are having trouble thinking clearly or are feeling confused
  • you have fainted

Shawna Cook

Shawna is a Certified Clinical Exercise Physiologist through the American College of Sports Medicine, who has been working in Cardiac Rehabilitation for over 10 years. Her years in the health and fitness field however have spanned over the past 2+ decades. As an elite level athlete she fell in love with understanding the human body, and how the choices she made, affected how it performed. This led to a degree from the University of Winnipeg in the stream of Athletic Therapy, and the passion towards helping others recover from injury and "be their best selves" grew.