How to Exercise Safely During Cold and Flu Season

Learn whether you should you work out when you’re sick—plus, get tips to help prevent catching and spreading infection.

woman exercising in cold weather

Medically reviewed in July 2022

Updated on July 19, 2022

Worried about coming down with a cold or flu and what that can mean for your exercise regimen? Feeling under the weather and don't have the energy to work out? Here’s what you need to know about exercising during cold and flu season.

Can exercise protect me from a cold or flu—or make me more susceptible?
Getting regular, moderate exercise tends to be a prescription for good health in general, and it could lower your risk of getting sick. Physical activity reduces the release of stress hormones, which may protect against illness. It also raises your body temperature and increases white blood cell circulation, potentially helping your body detect and fight infections.  

But sometimes too much of a good thing can be harmful. Excessive exercise may make you more vulnerable to viruses. This is because long bouts of intense physical activity can stress your immune system, weakening it for several hours afterward. So, be extra-careful to avoid germs during this time.

What about working out in the cold?
The notion that cold or rainy weather raises your chances of an infection is a myth. In general, it’s safe to exercise in lower temperatures as long as you’re properly dressed. If you do head out:

  • Dress in layers to avoid overheating.
  • Avoid cotton clothing, which retains moisture and may make you colder once you start sweating.
  • Opt for synthetic fabric, such as polypropylene, which wicks away moisture.
  • Cover your head, neck, hands, and feet properly.

If I'm sick, when should I take a break from exercise?
Between shared equipment and lots of heavy breathing in close quarters, fitness centers are ripe for spreading germs—which is why gyms shut down at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Because of this potential for passing on infection, it’s wise to avoid health clubs, studios, and other indoor exercise facilities when you’re sick with a cold, flu, COVID-19, or other illness.

For exercise at home or outdoors, you can gauge your level of intensity based on how you feel. Exercise is usually OK if you haven’t been diagnosed with a serious illness and your symptoms are above the neck, such as a runny nose, nasal congestion, sneezing, or minor sore throat. Try not to overdo the workout, though—it may worsen your symptoms and, in some cases, lengthen the illness. If you're feeling less than 100 percent, stick to light-to-moderate exercise (i.e., walking) until you start feeling better.

If you have been diagnosed with a more serious illness, you may want to avoid workouts until you get the all-clear from your healthcare provider (HCP) or no longer test positive. You may also want to take it easy for a while if you have the following symptoms:

  • Fever 
  • Wet cough
  • Gastrointestinal symptoms, such as vomiting or diarrhea

How can I avoid germs at the gym to avoid getting sick?
Even though many fitness centers clean equipment regularly—and ask that you wipe down equipment after using it—germs can still hide on things like dumbbells, free-weight benches, and cardio and weight-training machines. Interior door handles are another top spot for infectious bugs. And while most germs won't make you sick, it's better to be cautious.

Try these tips to sidestep gym germs:

  • Bring your own water bottle and avoid the water fountain.
  • Shower or wash your hands with antibacterial soap before and after hitting the gym.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.
  • When possible, stay at least 6 feet from other people.
  • Wipe down gym equipment before and after use to avoid the last person’s germs, while also leaving things clean for the next person.

Working out during cold and flu season may help you stay strong and healthy and could even lower your risk of becoming ill. But when you’re sick, be sure not to overdo it. Stay mindful of catching—and spreading—unwanted germs.

Article sources open article sources

Simpson RJ, Campbell JP, Gleeson M, et al. Can exercise affect immune function to increase susceptibility to infection?. Exercise Immunololgy Review. 2020;26:8-22.
126.
Campbell JP & Turner JE. Debunking the Myth of Exercise-Induced Immune Suppression: Redefining the Impact of Exercise on Immunological Health Across the Lifespan. Frontiers in Immunology. 16 April 2018. 
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Symptoms of COVID-19. Page updated March 22, 2022. Accessed July 14, 2022.
MedlinePlus. Common cold. January 16, 2021. Accessed July 14, 2022.
MedlinePlus. Exercise and immunity. January 23, 2020. Accessed July 14, 2022.
American College of Sports Medicine. Exercise and the Common Cold. 2009. Accessed July 14, 2022.
NYU Langone. When It’s Safe to Exercise After Getting Sick.” April 21, 2020. Accessed July 19, 2022.
Mayo Clinic. Fitness: Is it OK to exercise if I have a cold? February 23, 2022. Accessed July 19, 2022.

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