To exercise or not to exercise when you feel poorly?

running shoes - Exercise or not exercise when unwell?

It sounds like I am losing my voice and I also have a swelling in my neck. I also get cough attacks once in a while but apart from that I am fine. I think. But should I go to my regular spin class? I go spinning every Tuesday. No fail. It’s part of my activities which keep me fit and healthy.

Thinking of not doing my usual exercise makes me feel uncomfortable. I hate missing my workouts, especially because most of the day I sit in the office and I am inactive. But if I go to the spin class, will I be doing my body more harm than good? I decide to investigate.

Regular exercise helps to strengthen immune system

I previously wrote about exercise and how it can improve health here – one of the positives is that exercise actually has a beneficial effect to the immune system. After moderate exercise the immune system will often be temporarily enhanced and this is because natural killer cells responsible for strong immune system gets stimulated. However, too much exercise can have the opposite effect so it’s never good to overdo it.

Does this mean you should exercise when you don’t feel your best? It depends.

When exercising is a good idea when you are ill

Whether you should exercise or not when you are sick it really depends on how ill you are and how you feel. There is actually a rule called the ‘neck check’ (1) which is recommended to follow to help you decide whether to exercise or not. Basically, if you have symptoms above the neck (for example symptoms of a common cold) then it’s ok to exercise.

If you have symptoms below the neck, such as bronchitis and stomach pains, then it’s definitely not a good idea to exercise. You should also not exercise if you have fever, fatigue and widespread aches. Sometimes your body just needs some rest and you have to accept that. Don’t force your body to exercise when it should be really resting.

According to the rule above, I should really be fine to exercise, but with my throat problems, spinning may not be such a good idea actually. Dry, stuffy air you get in the spin room could actually make things worse. I also think that taking it easy may help my body to heal quicker. So at the end I decided to skip the spin class and just do some gentle exercises at home instead.

Exercises you can do when feeling unwell

While spinning may exacerbate my throat problems, walking would not, so this is something I can easily do. Walking is also great if you are suffering from other minor symptoms above the neck and ‘may even help you feel better by opening your nasal passages and temporarily relieving nasal congestion’. (2)

Non-cardio workouts such as yoga and pilates are something you could also do when you are not feeling your best. So luckily there are still workouts you can do when unwell, however sometimes you just need to listen to your body, let your body guide you and help you decide on the activity to participate in.

If you are still not sure whether you should exercise or not when you are unwell, the best is to talk to your doctor for advice.

Do you tend to exercise when you feel unwell or do you just accept it and give your body a rest?



  1. I’ve always gone off the ‘above the neck’ rule, but now to be honest I know if I’m ill it’s my body telling me to rest and that missing an odd workout won’t kill me!

    1. It’s good to hear you already knew about this rule Laura, I didn’t know actually! Yes, the best is to listen to your body and do what it feels right for you.

  2. I often find I use feeling under the weather as an excuse to skip exercise. However, I shouldn’t do because light exercise has actually helped me feel better before and now that I’ve read your post I’ve got no excuses 🙂

  3. Well from experience exercising with a cold actually relieves my symptoms but usually with below the neck symptoms I’ve never even attempted exercise. I also go by the if i’m well enough to go to work rule too.

    1. I think I know what you mean. In the past when I had a cold and went for a walk outside this actually helped my blocked nose so it didn’t feel that stuffy.