Exercising When Sick: Should You Do It?

It’s a common question: should you train when you’re sick?  Many people don’t know the answer.

First thing’s first: just how sick are you?

As the days grow chillier, it’s normal that you might feel under the weather. But when you’re trying to decide whether to hang up your sneakers or not, you need to differentiate between having a common cold or a full-blown flu.

How sick ARE you? The flu vs. a cold

Chances are you’ll know about it if you’ve got the flu. It really knocks you for six – you’ll most likely have a fever, aches and pains, and have little or zero energy.

The flu will also impact on your immune system, placing it in a vulnerable state. While training can help us feel great and energise us, the body needs to be in a state of good health to experience the full benefits. When you’re sick, your body is already fighting a battle just to get well – it doesn’t need another battle on its hands.

12WBT fitness guru Ben says: “Training while sick with the flu will only negatively affect the immune system, causing you to feel worse. Therefore, your best option is to rest from training while focusing on great nutrition and maintaining a high fluid intake.”

A run-of-the-mill cold, when you might have a slight cough, runny nose and feel generally under the weather, is a different story. Ben’s opinion? Train, but be gentle. “You’ll probably still be able to train with lower weights, fewer sets, for shorter durations and at a lower intensity to prevent yourself from pushing too hard,” he explains.

If symptoms persist or get worse, stop training until they subside.

Also read: 10 Foods for a Natural Boost

Avoid getting sick: why prevention is better than cure

Sadly, there’s no magic cure for a cold or the flu. The best defence is a healthy immune system, and good nutrition is essential for keeping your immune system strong. This is important in cooler weather, when seasonal illnesses like colds and flus are at their peak. Maintaining a well-balanced diet will give you all the essential nutrients you need for a healthy immune system.

Follow our simple nutrition tips to give your body the best chance of fighting off common winter bugs:

  • Eat foods rich in protein: Protein is made up of amino acids that help the immune system ward off illnesses such as colds and flus. Include rich sources of protein, like lean red meat, chicken, fish, seafood, eggs, beans and unsalted nuts and seeds.
  • Eat a wide variety of fruit and vegetables: Fruit and vegetables contain antioxidants and bioflavonoids that can help boost your immune system and fight infections. Aim for at least five servings of vegetables and two servings of fruit a day.
  • Drink plenty of water: Aim for eight glasses or cups a day. Try warm teas as the weather starts to cool down. Herbal teas are perfect for keeping you hydrated, while black, green, oolong and white teas contain antioxidants and flavonoids, which can help strengthen the body’s immune system.
  • Don’t skip breakfast: Some studies have shown skipping breakfast may make you more susceptible to illness. A tasty tip is to add frozen summer berries to porridge – the extra antioxidants will help to keep your immune system healthy.
  • Stay active: Keep active and work out regularly. Studies have shown that regular exercise reduces your number of sick days. But listen to your body and, if you’re not feeling 100 percent, take it easy.

Boost your immune system

Be your own doctor by making sure you have an adequate intake of the following handy helpers:

  • Vitamin C: Boosts immunity by stimulating the formation of antibodies that fight infections. Include two servings a day of foods rich in vitamin C, like oranges, kiwi fruit, broccoli and red capsicum.
  • Vitamin E: Works as an antioxidant and may help to improve immune function. Rich sources include avocado, almonds, spinach and olive oil.
  • Zinc: Helps the immune system work properly and can also help with wound healing. Zinc can be found in lean red meat, chicken, seafood, dairy products, eggs, whole grains, beans and nuts. Try this yummy Chicken & Broccolini Laksa.
  • Garlic: Rich in allicin and sulphuric compounds which can help to stimulate the immune system.

12WBT has the Meal Plans and workouts to keep you feeling – and looking – your very best. Join today.

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19 thoughts on “Exercising When Sick: Should You Do It?

  1. I pushed myself on my last swim convincing myself I would feel fabulous at the end. Everything was a battle, but I kept cheering myself on. I was a complete trembling mess at the end. So bad I thought I was going to faint in the shower. Next day full blown head cold, nausea and fatigue. Two days rest despite the guilt and bouncing back. Will listen to my body a more closely.

  2. This post has come at the perfect time for me! In fact, I was going to post a question about it.

    I got sick over the weekend, not the flu but a cold. Generally I get pretty bad sinus congestion and it’s hard to breathe as it is. I couldn’t image going to the gym like that.

    It’s not an excuse, as I’ve been kicking ass and going to the gym 6 days a week since the program started, but I did decide to take a break and let my body get well for a few days before I train again. I’m still sticking to the eating plan and will be going back to the gym tomorrow, as I will hopefully be feeling better.

    My main concern was that putting my sick body under more pressure will only prolong the cold. Is this correct?


    1. Hi Julia – Oh you poor thing, I’m so sorry to hear that you have been feeling unwell and thanks so much for reaching out for advice on whether or not to work through this. You’re a trooper!

      It is frustrating when you have been so committed, doing all of the right things and then, boosh, you wake up feeling a bit ‘waaaaaaah!’

      We then often hear the question, ‘Should I still train while feeling unwell?’.

      The answer really depends on how sick you are and whether or not you feel totally unable to perform exercise safely?

      If it is a common cold, where you’ll generally have a runny nose and maybe a slight cough, you will probably still be able to train with less weight, less sets, train for shorter durations and at a lower intensity to prevent yourself from pushing too hard.

      Once you start to feel better, in terms of things you can do at home, try this circuit and see how this feels – but if you feel dizzy then stop!.


      Step Ups – aim for 6 leading with your left leg, then 6 on the right leg.
      Squats against a wall (back against the wall for support – check out the exercise in the Exercise Index called “Squats with Fitball – withor without Dumbbells”. Do this, but instead of your back against the Fitball, have your back against the wall) aim for 6 reps
      Scapular Wall Slide aim for 6 reps
      Pushups on Knees (or back of a bench – maybe the edge of your sofa if the sofa is quite steady and wont slide back) aim for 6 reps
      Kneeling Core and Balance aim for 6 reps with Right arm/Left leg, then 6 reps other side
      Side Taps aim for 6 reps where 1 rep is a tap to the Left and to the Right.

      Stretch and relax!

      Depending on how you feel you can repeat the circuit once, twice, three times – more times through as you feel better. Then as you are ready to get back into the full swing of things you can!

      Make sure you drink plenty of water because you are usually really dehydrated when you are ill, and again if you need to rest – rest.

      I know when I feel a little under, I usually try to do a lighter workout and assess how it feels. If I feel awful, I just accept that I’m better off resting and coming back fully charged and on the other hand, sometimes a little session actually helps!

      Hope you feel better soon!
      12WBT Support Crew

  3. I’ve got bronchitis and am taking anti biotics. Im sure if I’d taken it easy on the weekend I wouldn’t be so bad. I haven’t trained for 2 days. My weigh in will not be good in the morning.

    1. Not true, Amy. I work in the medical field, and all my colleagues who have had the flu shot get just as sick as the rest of us. The flu vaccine is best for the elderly or people with compromised immune systems, in order to stimulate their immune responses so that the flu doesn’t kill them. For the rest of us, we just have to suffer through it!

  4. I’m struggling with the exercise programme a bit as I’m recovering from severe paralysis from myasthenia gravis. This has been compounded by twisting my knee last week! – it never rains …..! I have resorted to just keeping up my steps , trying to stay above 10,000 per day – any additional advice about exercise modification?

    1. Hi Gill – It’s great to hear you’re keeping up your steps, great work! I would suggest speaking to a healthcare professional firstly about what exercises you should and shouldn’t do. You don’t want to injure yourself any further.

      Good luck with it all!

      12WBT Support Crew

  5. I have issues sometimes with lower back pain. I see a PT once a week and not wanting to be a quitter, I don’t know whether to ask her for lighter session or just miss out for the week.

    1. Hi Louise – Chat with your PT, you’re not quitting if you’re dealing with an injury. It’s much better to speak up than continue on and end up needing more time off in the future due to more severe pain. Let her know so that she can modify the training you do together and recommend other exercise options for you.

      All the best,
      12WBT Support Crew

  6. Any suggestions to do all I can with a bad knee would be appreciated. I fell hard on it a few days ago and will be getting an xray as it is getting more painful to walk on. I need to do small things to help me as I already fell off the ban wagon chasing a dream hehe 😛 Thankyou

    1. Hi Sacha,

      Oh OW, that would be very painful indeed. We recommend that you don’t do anything involving your knee until you have had your x-rays and been seen in person by your health professional. Knees are complex things and depending on what you have done to it, your health professional will let you know what you can do and what you should avoid.

      In the meantime as often as you can, try lying with your legs up the wall, so you can take pressure off the joint. Lie in the fetal position with your butt and soles of your feet against the wall. Roll onto your back and extend your legs up the wall. This is a fantastic relaxing posture anytime you’ve been on your feet all day, not just when you are dealing with a knee injury!

      Remember if weight loss is the main goal, 80% of weight loss is through nutrition, so eat clean and with portion control and the weight should continue to come off.

      All the best with it,
      12WBT Support Crew

  7. Hi all,
    Might be a good idea to have a yearly flu shot.
    Helps to reduce your risk as well as protecting the vulnerable in the community too!

  8. HI Michelle,
    Was wondering whether you are above to hold a spot for me on you 12WBT.

    Kind Regards,

  9. If working out while sick at a public gym, perhaps helpful to be a little extra vigilant with wiping down the equipment after use for the benefit of other users :)).

  10. Hi I’m feeling great since doing the 12WBT but have been unable to do much this week,. I should be able to go for a walk tomorrow. I’ve been in hospital. All good now.

  11. Be considerate of others and stay away from the gym if you think you might be contagious. Your individual desire to exercise isn’t more important than the next person’s right to not be exposed to your bugs.

  12. Last week I had a really bad chesty cough and decided not to do any exercise as I”m in the 10KM running group but stayed really strict with my diet. It’s amazing I still lost 400grams – diet really is 80% of results. Monday was my first day back training and I went slow but today I decided to push myself for my 12minute run test and 11 minutes and 10seconds later I was vomitting on the side of the road….BEST advise keep at it but go slow and steady and stick to the diet as that is the main key.

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