Should you walk with a cold? How to exercise if you’re sick

Is it ok to walk with a cold, and if so how do you know when it really is time to take a day off? Colds and minor illnesses are a fact of life – especially in winter which is peak cold and flu season. It’s important to know when it’s ok to exercise, and when you definitely need to rest so that you don’t miss out on your walking goals, but also don’t make yourself more sick by walking. While you know that walking is good for your health (and can even reduce your risk of colds), you also understand the importance of rest and recovery. While it can be frustrating to miss out on your personal step goal, you’re almost definitely going to have to take it easy when walking with a cold. You can still walk with a cold in many cases. In fact, walking is one of the most recommended forms of cardio exercise for people dealing with colds.

It turns out that there is a simple rule that can help you decide whether to walk or not with a cold. By keeping regular winter walking considerations in mind, taking things easy, and evaluating your symptoms you can keep up your walking routine even during cold and flu season (and rest when you need to). Here’s how!

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Can you walk with a cold?

Woman bundled up in snowy park in winter
Good luck images / Shutterstock

Walking is a low-to-moderate intensity physical activity, which means it doesn’t put too much stress on your body. Health.com actually recommends walking as a great exercise if you have a cold. Walking can help improve mild cold symptoms, like opening stuffy sinuses. If walking makes your cold symptoms worse, however, then stop walking and take a rest.

The American Lung Association agrees that moderate-intensity exercise, like walking, is ok with a cold. They suggest making sure to hydrate, as dehydration can worsen your cold symptoms. If you have other health complications, like asthma, The ALA suggests talking to your doctor about whether you should continue to exercise or rest until your symptoms appear.

WebMD cautions that breathing difficulties due to a cold can make you out of breath faster, while exercising while taking decongestants or other medications can lead to an extra fast heartbeat, in addition to other potential complications. If you’re sick enough that you need to take cold medicine to get by then you should probably take a good rest instead of going out and doing some fitness walking.

When should you rest?

Woman with cold drinking tea at home
Josep Suria / Shutterstock

The Mayo Clinic (as well as the above organizations) gives this bit of advice that can help you to determine if your symptoms are severe enough that you shouldn’t try to continue with your exercise or walking routine. If your symptoms are above the neck, such as a stuffy or runny nose, sore throat or sneezing, you can probably tolerate mild exercise. But if your symptoms lie below the neck, such as chest congestion and cough, fever, muscle aches or gastrointestinal upset, you should rest and not try to push it.

That doesn’t mean that you have to exercise if you have a cold, however. It’s important to listen to your body and rest when you need to. Regardless of how severe or mild your symptoms are, if you feel exhausted you should take it easy. And even if you decide to engage in some form of exercise, lower the intensity and decrease the duration while ill.

Walking can actually reduce your risk of colds!

Exercise like walking has been linked to a reduced risk of colds and other minor illnesses (among other great benefits)! A 2010 study found that exercise cut the number of colds in half, and active people who did get colds had 30-40% less severe symptoms. Regular exercise may increase the production of certain types of white blood cells that help the body fight infection. Animal studies suggest that exercise may lightly stress your immune system as your body heals the effect of walking on your muscles. This might increase the body’s ability to fight actual infections in addition to fixing ordinary wear and tear.

Since it’s hard to avoid sniffling people at work, on public transportation or when out and about, boosting your immune protection through walking is a great way to get healthy and stay as cold-free as possible!

How should you walk when you have a cold?

Older male athlete taking a break during walk or run
Rido / Shutterstock

Since the common cold is, in fact, common, most adults will be affected 2-3 times a year. The CDC reports that it can take 7-10 days to recover from a cold. If you have a compromised immune system or chronic illness, your cold can progress to a more serious illness such as pneumonia or bronchitis if you’re not careful. If on the other hand you are a relatively healthy adult and are determined to push through the sniffles to get in your steps, you can still walk safely.

Even if you’re an experienced walker, you’re likely to have less energy with a cold. This means that you should plan to take shorter walks, and perhaps walk at less of a brisk pace. A cold or flu day is not the time for an intense walking workout, as you’re likely to tire out or exacerbate your cold symptoms.

As winter is peak cold and flu season, you’ll want to make sure you stay warm while walking with a cold. This means following our general winter walking advice, but dressing extra warm and ensuring that you can get back easily if necessary. Keep in mind that your energy levels may fall suddenly with a cold, so stick close to home in case you need to cut your walk short. Working out at home, either on a treadmill or doing some at-home cardio, is a great way to stay warm and get your steps in. You’ll also be less likely to spread your cold to others. Indoor walking, preferably in a location with fewer people (to avoid spreading germs) is another good option with a winter cold.

Make sure to wear adequate clothing in cooler weather. In very cold weather a hat and even pullover mask and scarf can protect your upper airway from the cold air which could irritate it. ay.

Tips on Recovering From a Cold

Sick woman sitting on couch reading thermometer
Stock-Asso / Shutterstock

Warm Fluids and Broths – Increasing your fluid intake can help to thin out thick secretions in your upper respiratory tract. Make sure to stay hydrated! During the winter, you may find it helpful to drink warm non-caffeinated teas throughout the day. Sweetening your tea with honey may help soothe an irritated throat. If your appetite is diminished, it may make it difficult to eat nourishing meals. Sipping on warm broths or thin soups may serve to supply your body with healing nutrients.

Rest to Recover – You will need more than the usual rest in order to recover. This can prove difficult with nasal congestion and cough. You may opt to take an over the counter cold and flu medicine designed to help you have restful sleep. If you do decide to use cold medicine, be careful when walking as certain decongestants can lead to elevated heart rate when exercising. If you’re this sick, it’s better to take a day off.

Sleep is the body’s chance to heal and recover, and it’s crucial to getting over an illness. If you’re not able to sleep a solid 7-8 hours due to your cold, try to take naps when possible and rest up as much as you can. Cut down on your exercise if you’re not sleeping well, as exercising on little sleep makes it hard for your body to recover and increases your risk of injury.

Give Yourself Time – Although you may feel like popping out of bed and getting right back into your normal life, recovering from a cold cannot be rushed and often only time can cure you of your illness. Resist the urge to return prematurely to a grueling work and workout program, rather take as much time as your body needs to fully recover.

Ease yourself back into your steps – Even after you’ve recovered from your cold, you should give yourself time before trying to get back to your original step number. Treat your steps the same way you would if you were coming back from injury – start low and increase your step count if your body feels good after walking.

Walking will still be there in a week (or in a few weeks if you had a particularly bad flu). There’s no rush to get back to hit your step numbers. Walking is a long-term health and fitness activity, and you’re better off recovering your health 100% than trying to push back too fast.

Don’t give your cold to others!

Woman sneezing from a cold in winter
Antonio Guillem / Shutterstock

Having a cold (or flu) is no fun, so make an effort to prevent giving your cold to others. From a walking standpoint, try to avoid heavily populated areas. If you have a cough, consider resting instead of walking or at least walking solo in areas with few people. Exercise can sometimes make your cough worse, so if you’re exercising in home try to avoid exercising in front of loved ones with a chest cold.

Wash your hands often with soap and water for 20 seconds, or try alcohol-based hand sanitizers to reduce your chances of spreading germs to others. Be mindful of common areas that could be infected such as doorknobs, faucets, and light switches and disinfect these frequently. Washing bed linens and pillowcases frequently during your cold will not only reduce the chances that you spread your cold to your mate or children, but can also uplift your mood and help you to sleep more soundly.

When in doubt, see a doctor

If your cold or flu is severe, or you’re not sure whether you should be walking or not, consult a doctor to be sure. It’s always best to get the opinion of a medical professional. If you end up taking a few days off that you didn’t need to take it’s not a big deal in the long run. Ignoring a major medical issue, on the other hand, can be very serious. When in doubt, be safe!

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If you haven’t downloaded the Pacer app yet, download Pacer now for free (on mobile)! You can also check out our website (mobile or desktop) or follow our blog for more great walking and healthy lifestyle tips.

 

 

 

 

 

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