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QUIZ: Should You Exercise When Sick?

The Huffington Post   Posted: 01/06/12 08:38 AM ET

When you've got a serious case of the sniffles, you may not feel like hitting the gym (and other gym goers may not want you there sneezing on them, anyway) but should you?

Breaking a sweat can protect you from runny noses and sick days. In a 2010 study, David Nieman Ph.D., director of the Human Performance Lab at Appalachian State University, and colleagues found that regular exercisers experienced 43 percent fewer sick days than people who didn't exercise. They also reported less severe symptoms during the days they did have colds.

If you've already come down with something, you're out of luck. "There's no human data that exercise will knock the cold out or shorten the duration of a cold," Nieman tells The Huffington Post. "In the only two studies ever done in humans, it didn't help and it didn't hurt."

If you're in the middle of an exercise plan (New Year's resolution, anyone?) and don't want to lose steam, but find yourself feeling a little under the weather, take our quiz to find out if you should push through or throw in the towel.

For more on colds and flu, click here.

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  • Question 1

    You have a runny nose and a minor scratchy throat. Can you still work out?

  • Answer: Go For It

    Follow the general rule of thumb that if all your symptoms are above your neck (sniffles, sore throat, minor cough) you're okay to exercise. "Exercise neither helps nor hurts the symptoms of a moderate cold," says Nieman. "Don't do anything too severe, and it should be okay." But know your limits. Over-exertion can make symptoms last longer, he warns.

  • Question 2

    You have chest and lung congestion and you feel achy allover. Can you still work out?

  • Answer: Sit This One Out

    The other side of the above-the-neck rule is -- you guessed it -- the below-the-neck rule. "If it's a fever, in your chest, you have tiredness, don't exercise at all," says Nieman. "Wait until the symptoms go away and then slowly get back to your normal routine." Not sure if you have a fever? Err on the side of caution and skip today's workout.

  • Question 3

    By "neck rule" standards, you're in the clear, but you had planned a high-intensity workout for today. Can you stick to the plan?

  • Answer: Better To Tone It Down

    It's best to tune down the intensity, even if your symptoms are not severe. Start out at about <a href="http://www.health.com/health/condition-article/0,,20257420,00.html" target="_hplink">50 percent of your normal intensity</a>, and if you feel okay after 10 minutes, gradually bump it up to about 80 to 90 percent max, Health.com reports. "Don't push the pace," warns Nieman, "but a brisk walk should be fine." Strength-training, stretching and yoga can also be good low-intensity options for <a href="http://www.fitsugar.com/Exercises-Do-When-Youre-Sick-20156271" target="_hplink">sick-day workouts</a>, according to FitSugar.

  • Question 4

    You have a low fever, but you'll just sweat it out, right?

  • Answer: Wrong

    "If the average person goes out to 'sweat it out' they could really hurt themselves," says Nieman. Anecdotally, heavy exertion when you have a fever seems to cause viruses to spread in a way that may lead to long-lasting symptoms similar to chronic fatigue syndrome, like tiredness, lower athletic performance and joint pain, says Nieman. "Just take it easy," he says. "There are too many risks involved."

  • Question 5

    True or false: A light workout will make your symptoms better.

  • Answer: False

    While exercise can create some immediate <a href="http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/exercise/AN01097" target="_hplink">congestion relief</a>, according to the Mayo Clinic, (we've all seen runners shooting snot rockets!) Nieman says there's no research to back up those boogers. And if you have a fever and flu-like symptoms, you'll also put yourself at additional risk. Your heart pumps blood from your muscles to your skin to help cool you off when you exercise. If you have a fever, your temperature will be even higher than normal during your workout, putting your heart under <a href="http://www.runnersworld.com/article/0,7120,s6-241-286--9082-0,00.html" target="_hplink">greater pressure to keep you cool</a>, <em>Runner's World</em> reports. "If the individual has any indication of a fever or general aches and pains, or muscle weakness, or they are just disinclined to exercise but then go out and force themselves to do it, they're really asking for it," says Nieman. Studies of animals exposed to the flu virus have found that heavy exercise resulted in longer and more severe symptoms, and even a higher rate of death, he explains.

  • Question 6

    Should you stay out of the gym when you're sick?

  • Answer: Not Necessarily

    Just keep in mind some common-sense <a href="http://www.webmd.com/cold-and-flu/features/exercising-when-sick?page=2" target="_hplink">etiquette tips</a> from WebMD. Cover machine surfaces with a towel and be extra diligent with the sanitizer spray after you're finished. Wash your hands before and after your workout (and <a href="http://www.cdc.gov/flu/protect/habits.htm" target="_hplink">more often in general</a>). However, if you're going to be sneezing or blowing your nose constantly, do us all a favor and stay home.

  • Question 7

    True or false: If you exercise harder, you will have even more protection against colds.

  • Answer: False

    "The happy medium is 30 to 60, maybe 75 minutes; in that arena there's great protection," says Nieman. "But as soon as you get to 90 minutes or more of very heavy exertion, then the immune system starts to go the other way." In his 1990 study of over <a href="http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2266764" target="_hplink">2,300 runners of the Los Angeles Marathon</a>, Nieman and colleagues found that the day after the marathon, runners were six times more likely to get sick. "The immune system can't perform its job as well," he explains.

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