Problems on the Path to Fitness Problem #2: The Dreaded Cold Season

We’ve all been there. You wake up feeling like you got hit by a bus, like your head is on fire, plowing through a box of tissues at an alarming pace, sneezing so loud that you scare the cat away, as you question your ability to make it through a day at the office while putting on workout clothes or getting ready to go for a run. Now, I totally get that many people (myself included) feel that working out is way more fun and exciting than a day at work but if you find yourself unable to bend over and tie your shoes without your runny nose, uh…running away from you (gross), it’s time to take a minute to think this one through a bit more.

In my time as an athlete and coach, I’ve discovered that- when it comes to working out- most people generally fall into one of two buckets: (a) those who look for any excuse to work out; and (b) those who look for any excuse to get out of working out. You may be thinking that Bucket (a) is the better option but that’s not always the case. Obviously, this post is substantially more relevant to those who fall squarely into Bucket (a) (like me). So, Bucket (a) Crew, listen up and prepare to have your mind blown…hard as it may be to imagine, there are some really good reasons to NOT work out from time to time.

In this month’s installment of “Problems on the Path to Fitness”, we investigate a couple of those reasons, covering two questions that we’ve probably all asked ourselves at one point or another after waking up with a not-so-pleasant viral surprise.

But first, a DISCLAIMER: Each person is different. This guidance provided below is for general information only for people who are otherwise generally healthy and active and it should not override any medical advice provided to you. When in doubt, you should always consult your healthcare provider or pharmacist and listen to your body.

  1. Should I work out when I have a cold?

Research has shown that exercising at a low to moderate intensity with a common cold is generally fine if you are healthy and don’t have any other medical problems, such as asthma, heart problems or other medical conditions. While low to moderate intensity exercise has not been shown to compromise immune system function during a common cold for otherwise healthy adults, you should avoid high intensity workouts (such as high intensity interval training and heavy strength training) while fighting a cold as these types of workouts have been shown to negatively alter immune response- meaning you could end up being sicker for longer.

A commonly-accepted rule of thumb, one that I use when gauging myself, is the “above-the-neck rule”: if your symptoms are all above your neck (ex. runny nose or sneezing), generally you should be fine to exercise but if any of your symptoms are below your neck (ex. chest congestion, muscle aches, fever, upset stomach, etc.), rest and let your immune system recover. Note that we are talking about the common cold here- you shouldn’t work out while you have the flu.

Be patient with yourself if you opt to work out with a head cold, even a little sneezing and runny-nose action can make it harder for you to breathe normally which could elevate your heart rate a bit more than usual. Also, if you choose to work out and then feel worse afterwards, take that as a red flag, cut back and take a few days off or reduce your effort to 50 percent.

  1. Should I work out while on cold meds?

First things first, if you have to take cold meds to get through your workout, you should not be working out at all. This should be obvious and there’s no grey area here.

Also, if you take any other medications regularly, you should consult your pharmacist or other medical professional before taking cold meds and exercising as many medications can affect the function of your heart, brain, and other internal organs. Since you need all these things listed to stay alive, be safe and cautious- it’s not worth the risk. Again, this is a no-brainer folks.

Many over-the-counter cold medications (like those which contain pseudoephedrine or dextromethorphine) can make you groggy and give you a mean case of medicine-head which could increase your risk of getting injured while exercising. If you are under the influence of these meds, experts say it’s better to take a few days off rather than risk weeks (or longer) off for a twisted ankle or other injury.

Additionally, if you’re taking pain relievers to treat a cold, you’re probably better off resting, as these meds can mask the warning signs that you are overdoing it during exercise.

While I genuinely believe determination an extremely valuable trait and is essential to reaching your goals, there is also something to be said for listening to and honoring your body rather than just putting it through the ringer all the time. Often times, it all boils down to one simple choice: take a little time off now to recover and get back to firing on all cylinders OR push through by any means necessary and risk having to take a lot of time off later due to injury or other complications- and let’s be honest, this shouldn’t be a decision that we have to ponder for longer than two seconds.

Remember that we humans are blessed with an incredible ability to self-heal so allow your body the time it needs to get that job done so it can continue to serve you (and your beloved workouts) for many years to come. Be well, friends!

Photos provided by Stories by M Photography