Colds and exercise: working through it vs. waiting it out

Colds are annoying.

There’s never a convenient time for them; either you’re super-busy and have to cancel or reschedule a bunch of commitments, or you’re finally free to do something fun (like ride, or hike, or swim, or go to the beach), but you can’t because you’re feeling logy and stuffy-headed.

I’m bummed because: 1) my spring semester has finally ended; 2) the weather is very fine and great for fun outdoor activity; but 3) I just came down with an awful cold. So, 4) I don’t feel like moving at all right now.

But I was wondering: what kinds or amounts of exercise can I and should I do while I’m sick? I decided to ask the internet.

One of my favorite science and health writers, Gina Kolata, weighed in on the subject a while ago here.  It turns out that there are very few studies that have investigated the effects of colds on exercise. Kolata talks about one of them below:

The first question was: Does a cold affect your ability to exercise? To address that, the researchers recruited 24 men and 21 women ages 18 to 29 and of varying levels of fitness who agreed to be deliberately infected with a rhinovirus, which is responsible for about a third of all colds. Another group of 10 young men and women served as controls; they were not infected.

At the start of the study, the investigators tested all of the subjects, assessing their lung functions and exercise capacity. Then a cold virus was dropped into the noses of 45 of the subjects, and all caught head colds. Two days later, when their cold symptoms were at their worst, the subjects exercised by running on treadmills at moderate and intense levels. The researchers reported that having a cold had no effect on either lung function or exercise capacity.

“I was surprised their lung function wasn’t impaired,” Dr. Kaminsky said. “I was surprised their overall exercise performance wasn’t impaired, even though they were reporting feeling fatigued.”

He said he also tested the subjects at different points in the exercise sessions, from moderate to intense effort, and found that their colds had no effect on their metabolic responses.

So, inasmuch as we can learn something from one study, this one suggests that having a cold doesn’t necessarily have to slow us down. But does exercise actually help us get better any faster? Kolata discusses this, too:

Another question was: Does exercising when you have a cold affect your symptoms and recovery time? Once again, Dr, Kaminsky and his colleagues infected volunteers with a rhinovirus. This time, the subjects were 34 young men and women who were randomly assigned to a group that would exercise with their colds and 16 others who were assigned to rest.

The group that exercised ran on treadmills for 40 minutes every other day at moderate levels of 70 percent of their maximum heart rates.

Every 12 hours, all the subjects in the study completed questionnaires about their symptoms and physical activity. The researchers collected the subjects’ used facial tissues, weighing them to assess their cold symptoms.

The investigators found no difference in symptoms between the group that exercised and the one that rested. And there was no difference in the time it took to recover from the colds. But when the exercisers assessed their symptoms, Dr. Kaminsky said, “people said they felt O.K. and, in some cases, they actually felt better.”

In this study, exercise didn’t seem to have any effect on duration or intensity of colds, but it might make some people feel comparatively better.

The Mayo Clinic is a little more conservative in its advice about exercising while sick. Their website suggests that if symptoms are “above the neck” (e.g. sniffles, headache, etc.), it’s fine to exercise, but if symptoms are “below the neck” (e.g. coughing, chest congestion, upset stomach), it’s better to rest until those symptoms subside.

The past two days I’ve been home in bed. I’ve watched approximately 14 hours of Downton Abbey episodes, taken in lots of fluids, slept 11 hours a night (plus naps), and done nothing much. I have both above- and below-the-neck symptoms (stuffy nose, headache, plus coughing).

Still, maybe some movement is in order. Tomorrow I will take a nice walk in this park after church with Dan, knowing that, well, it can’t hurt…

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