Can Exercise Ward Off Cold and Flu Symptoms?


By Ben Montgomery

As cold and flu season approaches, so does the season of illness prevention.

From getting flu shots to adding a little extra Vitamin C to our diets, prevention often becomes a focus at this time of year for those concerned with getting sick, missing work and/or school, and optimizing their holiday joy.

It’s based on this mindset that medical professionals like Logan physical therapist Greg Schroeder get some version of this question: Can exercise boost my immune system?

According to Schroeder, the answer is broader than the question itself.

“In general, healthy living is the true key to building and maintaining a strong immune system, and regular exercise is definitely an important component of this,” says Schroeder, owner of Back at Work Physical Therapy in Logan, Clearfield, and Tremonton.

“Some studies have shown that exercise on its own can play a role in reducing the length and intensity of colds and flu,” Schroeder adds. “But, you can’t discount the long-lasting, immune-boosting benefits of other habits like eating right, staying hydrated, getting plenty of sleep, and reducing stress.”

Research supporting exercise as an immune booster often points to many benefits inherent in regular fitness routines as factors that also help ward off illness: weight management, lower blood pressure, reduction in stress, and improved circulation.

At the same time, some studies have concluded that regular, mild-intensity exercise can help reduce illness, while prolonged, high-intensity exercise can have the opposite effect by making one more susceptible to catching a bug.

“I tell people that if they feel they may be catching something—a cold, the flu, or whatever may be going around— they should pull back on the length and intensity of their exercise routine just to be on the safe side,” Schroeder says. “Keep getting your exercise, but also take greater care to make sure you’re staying hydrated, eating well, and giving your body time to recover.”

If you do get sick? According to advice from the Mayo Clinic, that doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t continue to exercise. They offer the following two rules of thumb:

The Neck Rule:If you catch a cold and find that all the symptoms are concentrated above the neck (i.e., nasal congestion, runny nose, sneezing, and/or a minor sore throat), it’s typically OK to exercise. Simply reduce your intensity. Instead of going for a jog, for instance, opt to go for a walk.

In contrast, if you find that you’re experiencing symptoms below the neck—things like a congested chest, a hacking cough, or an upset stomach— it’s best to not exercise at all.

The Fever Rule: Also, if you have a fever or are experiencing muscle aches and fatigue throughout your body, take a break from exercising. Instead, get some rest, stay hydrated and, if things don’t improve over a couple of days, visit your doctor.

“It’s always your best bet to listen to your body,” Schroeder says. “Just don’t overdo it. Pushing your body too hard when it’s fighting an illness can do you more harm than good.”

Ben Montgomery is a sports and health writer with two decades of experience as both a journalist and a marketer. He specializes in offering information and advice for people looking to live more active, healthful lives.

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The mission of Outdoor Sports Guide Magazine is to inspire and educate endurance athletes and outdoor enthusiasts in the Mountain West through well-written content on adventure, travel, gear, health, fitness, nutrition, industry news, profiles, and ski resort information.

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