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Should You Work Out When You’re Sick?

No one wants to work out when they’re sick. The vast majority of our clients would prefer to not work out at all if they didn’t have to.

But they also don’t want the progress they’re making with weight loss and exercising consistently to go down the drain just because they happened to get sick.

So what should they do?

First things first, this isn’t medical advice. If you want that, go talk to your doctor.

But if you want to know the practical info I share with my clients, coming from a fitness professional who hates doing ANYTHING when he’s sick, I’m your man.

The Simple Answer

When I say I don’t like doing anything when I’m sick, I’m only exaggerating slightly.

Even if it’s just a cold, if I could be 100% selfish and pretend the world revolved around me, I’d rent out a hotel room for the week, order room service for every meal, and stay in bed watching TV until every last sniffle left my body.

Man flu is a real thing.

So understand that I have no intention of telling you to “suck it up” or “just do it.” That’s dumb. I have a simpler approach.

What I tell my clients is that if they have a fever, don’t work out.

Beyond that, even without a fever, if you’re being honest with yourself and truly don’t feel up to doing any amount of exercise… don’t do it.

Even if you don’t do anything for an entire week, it’s really not that big of a deal. Nothing bad will happen. You won’t get weaker or put on a bunch of pounds just because you missed a few workouts.

You’ll be fine.

You can pick up where you left off when you feel better the next week.

What MAY be more difficult is the mental aspect. If you struggle with being consistent, a week off can make it feel tough to jump back into your routine.

If that’s what you’re concerned about, here’s what I do to work around that.

My Work-Around

With most colds, I tend to feel my worst for a day or two. So I’ll rearrange my workout routine to make those my days off.

For myself, and the vast majority of my clients, I only schedule 2-3 workouts per week anyway. (That’s really all the average person needs to get great results.)

That means if I feel myself starting to get sick on Monday, I can still exercise that day, take the next four days off if I need to, and get a second workout in on Saturday when I’m starting to feel more recovered.

I might miss my 3rd workout, but I got enough in to keep my head in the game, and that’s what’s important.

By the way, I don’t try to squeeze the extra workout in on Sunday either. I let my body recover for a day and then start my next week like normal — no guilt about missing a workout.

It’s just really not that serious. As long as I’m 80-90% consistent most of the time, missing one workout won’t make a difference anyway.

Staying Realistic

Just to reiterate, if you need to take a week off from exercise because you have a cold or flu, then take that week off and don’t feel bad about it.

But if you DO decide it would be better to try and get in a workout or two when you don’t feel terrible — but still aren’t at 100% — be sure to maintain realistic expectations.

Those won’t be days where you’re trying to break your own records. It’s ok to simply “go through the motions” at times like this. The point is just to get something done for the sake of your own routine.

Here are some recommendations I give my clients on how to adjust their workouts when they don’t feel great:

  • Use lighter weights.

  • Do fewer sets or reps.

  • Keep your intensity low.

  • Take your time/rest as needed.

  • Do a partial workout.

No matter how you do it, the important thing is to listen to your body. It’s already working extra hard fighting off the germs that got you sick. Pushing yourself to the limits with exercise won’t help that process, and it won’t get you to your goals any faster anyway.

The Elephant in the Room

Before 2020, the question of whether you should work out when you’re sick was a bit easier to answer.

I have no intention of giving any kind of political take on the situation, but I do want to acknowledge that the virus we were all confronted with at that time put a new spin on things.

If that’s what you’re dealing with specifically, everyone’s experience with it is a bit different, so there isn’t a universal recommendation on when you should start working out again.

With our clients, one of the more common things we’ve found is that even when they’re pretty fully recovered and out of quarantine, exercise still doesn’t feel the same for a while.

Going for a walk can get their heart rate way up and feel difficult for weeks, let alone doing a full workout.

The approach we’ve taken when this happens is threefold:

1. Stay Realistic

Just like I mentioned in the previous section, if all you can do is show up and do a workout that feels so easy it almost isn’t worth doing, do it anyway. It’ll keep your head in the game and prevent you from falling behind in your goals.

2. Track It

Whether you’re doing easy or partial workouts, or just going for walks, keep track of everything you do. You should be doing that with all of your workouts anyway, and there’s no reason to stop now (read “What Should I Track to Lose Weight?").

The reason this is important is because it’s the only way you can confidently make it to step 3…

3. Make Progress

You don’t want to resign yourself to short walks and easy workouts forever, but you also don’t want to do too much all at once, causing yourself to feel worse.

For several clients, this has meant starting out with 5 minute walks, then increasing to 10 minutes, then 15, and so on, until they’re ready to start doing actual workouts again.

At that point, we start just as slow.

Maybe it’s just one or two exercises with less weight and fewer reps than normal. Then we increase from there just as slowly as we did with the walks if we need to, and only when they’re ready.

Sometimes the progress happens over the course of several weeks. Other times it happens more quickly. The point is to be intentional about making progress where you can, but only when it feels appropriate.

The Critical Factor

The most important part of all of this is starting out with a down-to-earth approach to exercise in the first place.

A big reason why most people have a tough time staying consistent is because they take on too much with diet and exercise. Then they get thrown so far off track when they get sick (or go on vacation, or work picks up, etc.) that it feels pointless to even try again.

I’ve found that most people do well with working out for around 30 minutes just 2-3 times per week.

Some people need a flexible schedule, others need a more constant routine. Regardless, no matter how busy you are, and no matter how much you’d rather be watching TV rather than working out, there’s a solution that will work for you.

If you want to figure out what that might look like, check out how we can help you get there.


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