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As COVID-19, flu spreads, doctors weigh in on whether you should exercise while ill

Detail of legs of woman running on treadmills gym
Posted at 10:58 AM, Dec 16, 2022
and last updated 2022-12-16 13:58:27-05

There are many illnesses circulating going into the holiday season, including RSV, COVID-19 and influenza.

While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends 150 minutes a week of exercise, those recommendations go by the wayside when sick.

Dr. Mark Conroy specializes in sports and emergency medicine at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. He said he has seen an uptick in patients with respiratory viruses recently.

“Once you get sick, it is advisable to take a break and allow your body to recover,” Conroy said. “The severity of your symptoms is the deciding factor on whether you should exercise or not and how hard you exercise or not. For some individuals, going for a walk around the neighborhood is considered exercise, and if you have some congestion and a little bit of a sore throat but you don’t have a fever, it’s OK to continue that light exercise and get out and get some fresh air.”

Dr. Thomas Allison, the director of the Mayo Clinic’s Sports Cardiology Clinic, agreed that those with mild illnesses can do light exercises like walking without any serious consequences.

Allison is an experienced long-distance runner who qualified for the U.S. Olympic Trial in the marathon event. He said there is no evidence that going on a 10-mile run will cause an illness to go away.

“When you ask the question, ‘Should I be doing vigorous exercise when I have some sort of infection,’ the sensible answer is no,” he said. “The exercise is not going to reduce the duration or minimize the symptoms. You’re not going to recover faster because you went to the gym. And if it’s an infectious disease, you may be infecting other people at the gym.”

While athletes might be more concerned about staying fit for competition instead of recovering from an illness, the guidance remains the same.

“Illness is the body’s way of telling you, 'I need a chance to rest.' I encourage people to listen to their bodies. If they are feeling well enough without fever, without shortness of breath, without coughing, vomiting, those kinds of symptoms, if they’re feeling sick but they’re missing those symptoms, I encourage them to go out and do lighter activities,” Conroy said.

In the wake of COVID-19, Allison said he has seen an uptick in the number of athletes experiencing myocarditis. According to the Mayo Clinic, it is an inflation of the heart that can reduce the heart's ability to pump blood.

“If you have a fever, all of this increased blood flow could end up transferring the virus into your heart, then you have myocarditis,” he said. “There have been some classic cases of athletes developing myocarditis or inflation of the heart when they try to compete with a more severe illness.”

While there might be some apprehension about losing fitness, doctors say people who are already fit should not fear taking a few days off to rest.

“If you’re not someone who is active and out there when you are sick and you have a cold, that is not the time to get started on a workout routine," Conroy said.

Although exercise is generally not advised while ill, physical activity before being sick can help the outcomes.

“It is certainly important to exercise because exercise has been shown to improve your immune function and actually prevent infections because of the improved immune function,” Conroy said.

Allison said vaccinations and taking other precautions can also help people remain fit.

“The best way to stay fit is not to get sick,” he said.