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Exercise Reduces Sick Time Better Than Drugs

By , SparkPeople Blogger
As cold and flu season quickly approaches (or has already arrived if you live in my house), questions arise about exercise and illness. Is it okay to exercise if I have a cold? How soon after an illness can I return to regular activity? A lot of us are going to get sick this year, so it's good to know what to do if it happens to you. But what about preventing illness in the first place? We take our vitamins and eat our fruits and vegetables, but can exercise help protect you from getting a cold? Research says "yes."

According to an expert from the American College of Sports Medicine, "multiple studies have shown a 25% to 50% decrease in sick time for active people who complete at least 45 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise (such as walking) most days of the week." The protection that regular exercise offers is far greater than the protection drugs can provide, according to the article. So instead of taking a pill, take a walk to help ward off a cold!

Despite your best efforts, you might still end up getting the sniffles this winter. So what are some guidelines to follow when it comes to exercise?

  • If you've got a cold that's above the neck (runny or stuffy nose, sore throat, etc.) then you should be okay to exercise if you're feeling up to it.
  • If you have a cold that's below the neck (in your chest), or if you have other symptoms like a fever or swollen glands, it's better to rest.
  • Listen to your body. If you're not feeling good and you push it too much, the illness can end up hanging around longer.
  • Once you're well again, ease back into exercise. You might find it takes a week or two (or maybe even longer, depending on how sick you were) to get back up to your pre-illness level.
Do you notice you get fewer colds now than you did before you became active? Has being fit helped you fight off illness?

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I haven't had a single cold this winter and I normally get one after the other. Good information. Report
:) Report
This is great news! Thanks! Report
good incentive Report
I am almost NEVER sick, and I've been that way my entire life. I can probably count on the fingers of one hand the number of times an illness kept me house-bound. Part of it is attitude; I'm just not going to LET a cold stop me. Part of it is necessity (horses, pets, and some employers don't understand the concept of "sick days.") The only time I was ever miserably sick for a protracted period of time was ehen I was student-teaching. My immune system wasn't accustomed to germy little kids. I contracted every virus those kids brought to school with them, and it seemed as though I was sick my entire 20-week practicum! I toughed it out, though, and believe that this exposure only made my immune system stronger. Report
I recall when I was younger and taking karate for the very first time I never got one cold (I used to think I sweated it out). Report
I feel like every time I start to exercise, I get sick. So far, I got kicked out of my house when my husband got some weird fever that resulted in loss of his shoulders (docs don't know what it was), a couple of months after that, my daughter passed the H1N1 to us, then she shared the stomach virus and now she has given me a head cold.

My doc told me not to work out while I was sick because my body was already stressed and to give it a break. Ironically, I don't trust doctors. Report
Didn't have a cold this winter, so I'm happy. Did HATE the cold tempteratures. Report
Oh, I can't tell you how frustrated I am! I love SP, and I have totally changed my lifestyle. I'm current on my trackers, following them religiously. However, this is the SECOND cold I have had in less than two months! Ugh! I know that I've only been doing this since October, but I wish the "healthy" button would know that I've pushed it! :o/ Report
ugh, feeling the end of my cold right now (guzzled tea and soup like a nut yesterday, and today i'm staying in recovering some, watching the freak snowfall, and trying to do a research paper). but its nice to know there're probably some things you can get done, as far as exercise goes. i could probably do some weight training, or walking in place. my head gets all fuzzy a good portion of the time, though, and screws with my balance, so most exercise would be out the window. but i'll give it some shots now and then and see what works. my life is trial and error, really. Report
not just exercising but living this healthier lifestyle has all played apart with not gettin sick as often as well as how long and severe my colds are, with my breathing problems, if it went into my chest, i would have to take a breathing treatment every half hour, now, more like every 4 hrs, i cant believe what a change it has made for my overall health!! Report
I have been walking and exercising pretty faithfully for a year and a half and then got very frustrated when I got pneumonia this past summer and was hospitalized for four days. I felt kinda cheated because I'm healthier then I've been in years but that really layed me out. I guess sometimes infections sneak their way in, no matter what I do. Right now I have a sinus infection but am getting over it quicker then in past years and it hasn't followed it's usual pattern of causing bronchitis. In fact the Dr. said my lungs are clear. Vast improvement from past years with chronic bronchitis. I also hardly ever need my asthma inhalers any more. So exercise can't keep all illness away but it seems to help with the duration and severity. Now I'm off to blow my nose and go for a walk. Report
The only thing I get is a very rare cold maybe once a year and that usually happens when I let my regular exercising lapse because I am "too busy". I stay more and more away from that kind of thinking as the years pass -- there is no such thing as being too busy to get in some kind of exercise throughout the week. It takes planning just like anything else you want to fit into your schedule. Report
First to respond to CSCOF1214's comment, I would say that it sounds like stress is an added component to your getting sick especially since you mentioned that it is usually before big events. Your body is telling you to SLOW DOWN.

I agree completely with this article. I had a cold last week. I took a couple of days to rest, and then I went for several walks which boosted my energy and and reduced my recovery time. Report
Before I lost 80 pounds, I would get at least 2 colds per year. Now that I eat healthfully and exercise regularly, I get a cold once every 2 years!

I just had a cold 2 weeks and I continued my regular exercise routine. I usually felt much better after the gym and my cold only lasted for 3 days. My hubby caught the same cold (from me - Sorry Sweetie) and his lasted for a week!

I was just really meticulous about wiping down anything I touched so the person coming after me did not get me germs ;) Report
I don't usually get sick. I work with the public and I've never gotten the flu shot & I don't plan on getting the swine flu shot either. My family gets sick at least twice a year, but not me. Maybe it's the exercising I do or maybe it's good genes I don't know but consider myself blessed because of it. Report
I feel that exercise has done more for muscle and joint pains than anything else. I have chronic sinus problems. I think the only thing that has helped was surgery a few years ago. I've been running and exercising religiously for the past couple of months after my knee injury. Then, I got sick with a flu, then sinus infection, respiratory infection, and now it's much worse. I went to a zumba class once this week and got very light headed. I felt good about myself that I went, but not so much during the class. I really want to go, but there's no way I have enough energy or air capacity with all of my coughing to go. Report
I have gotten sick but do believe that exercise wards off a lot of illnesses. Report
I recovered from a cold VERY quickly just this past weekend. Wednesday last week, I started to feel a little cruddy, but chalked it up to a lack of sleep and hit the gym anyway. I CRASHED that night, sleeping 11 hours. Thursday, I spent the day feeling tired, achey, and sniffley. I slept lots, but still walked to and from downtown (a total of about 5 miles). The next day, I woke up feeling AMAZING!! I think my choice to exercise (and catch up on sleep) are why I got over it in a day instead of 4. Report
I haven't been sick once since I started exercising in January. Despite everyone in my family getting sick at least twice so far. I'm a believer. Report
Interesting study. I was down with a cold the last couple of days. I had foot surgery about a month ago, and was unable to exercise/walk for the 3 weeks before catching the cold. The fact that I wasn't in my usual exercise rountine could explain it!
I definitely think exercise and eating right helps ward off illness. Also, stress can play a role. I've always worked out regularly, but since I've been home running my own childcare, my stress level has decreased, and I've been able to fit in more exercise, and I haven't been sick since. I occasionally get a little stuffy (when all the kids get a bad cold), but then it passes and I'm fine. It's great! Report
well, something must be wrong with me..... because I workout 3-4 (if not more) times a week and eat really healthy, but I ALWAYS get sick right before big events like holidays or vacations and I don't understand why?! Any suggestions or ideas? It's really starting to irritate me because I'm working SO hard on keeping myself healthy and then like clockwork, I get a cold or sinus infection before EVERY important event :( Report
I never knew why I wasn't getting the 3 - 4 colds a year. Now I know. lol Report
I agree, though I hardly get sick. TG. Report
I have noticed if I'm in a vigorous aerobic program where I really sweat I get less colds and they move through faster. Also helps clear my lungs faster when asthma strikes. Report
Lifestyle,nutrition and exercise are the three vectors of health. If a person is observing all the three vectors as laid down then minor illnesses will not affect and major health hazards will be a remote possibility Report
Most definitely I ham less sickly since beginning regular exercise. I knew it would help because I would be basically healthier if I exercised, but I am surprised at just how much healtheir I really am. If I don't get "a lot" of exercise, I feel better and stay healthier in the long run even with minimal exercise of just 10 minutes 3 times a week. *S* Report
I find that when I have a head cold and if I'm not feeling 'ill', a good cardio class helps me to sweat out the cold and it's shorter in duration. Report
I only had one cold in the last year. Report
I have definitely noticed a difference. Before I started exercising every day I caught anything and everything that my sons brought home from school. Since joining SP and beginning daily exercise (May 26, 2009) I have not missed a day of work due to illness. Report
I genuinely have not had a cold since becoming a Spark member last November. I used to get about 3 colds each year before. Report
The more active I am and the more careful about what I eat (I have several food allergies), the less illness I have - I used to get colds and flues and any little bug that was floating more! Only a couple of times a year do I get sick, and I recover much faster. Hard to remember to excercise when I do have a cold, though. I just want to curl up and drink tea. Report
I was just commenting to a friend how many colds and sinus infections I had by this time last year and how I haven't had so much as a sniffle since I started training for a marathon. She thinks its because I'm not in the club so much (I only go to the club 2x a week because I do all my running outside) and exposed to fewer "germs", but I think it's all the endorphines and the fact that I'm sweating out all the impurities in my body by long distance running. A matter of opinion or just a coincidence but I'll take this fabulous feeling over being sick anyday! Report
To me, working out doesn't seem humanly possible at the moment. I have a really bad cold (possibly the flu) and I can't get my lazy butt off the couch! I tried to do a few squats and stretches like that, but when I stood up, I got very light-headed. I had to wait about 5 minutes for the dizziness to pass, so then I started doing squats and toe-touches and brisk knee-lifts, but I only got through 10 of each and then I collapsed onto the couch! I have no idea how I am supposed to find the energy to hit the elliptical!!!!!!!!!! Report
I was actually curious about this earlier in the year because I felt a cold coming on, but I went to the gym after work anyway. I woke up feeling like nothing was wrong. Report
Started working out about 2 years ago and in that time I have had one cold. So you might have something there.

Hardest thing about being sick with that one cold was I could not work out for about 4 days. That just about killed me. I am soooo addicted to the gym and walking that it was hard having to just take it easy at home. Report
Unfortunately I can’t say whether regular exercise would cut down on personal illness. I still haven’t gotten that part of the plan to stick. Controlling diet is much easier for me than making myself exercise. Still, I have no doubt that it’s true and it’s yet another good reason to get a handle on making regular activity an integral part of my life.

What has helped me though is regular flu shots, washing hands properly, and keeping hand sanitizer in the car. I’m caregiver to an elder person and using the hand sanitizer and other precautions has kept us cold and flu free for over three years.

I’m very prone to respiratory illness myself and the last flu I caught sent me to the emergency room. I dread what the flu would do to my grandmother. We’re doing more than crossing our fingers in the approach of the flu season that’s for sure, and every good reason I can keep in mind to add my exercise as I should is gonna help.
Going outside to do anything: walking, gardening, running, playing tennis makes me feel better whether ill or well. I'm rarely sick though (all my life), so it's hard to guage if regular exercise prevents illness for me. Regardless, I feel better with regular outside physical activity! Report
I agree definitely. Apart from the odd sniffle here and there and occasional general underweather feelings, I haven't had a proper cold / flu illness since I revitalised my health regime 3 years ago. And anytime I feel something coming on I hit the gym and then I'm back to myself again. There's no question about it. The endorphin rush kills all germs. Report
I can definitely see the difference in how sick I used to be compared to where I'm at now. Living a more active, healthy lifestyle has paid off in the building of my immune system, which up until now, wasn't that strong. Report
I have noticed that since I started working out as much as I am, I never get sick. Maybe some sniffles from time to time, but never that causes me to even call in sick to work! I will agree exercise prevents illness, so keep moving! Report
YES I'm more healthier then I ever been thanks to daily exercise & losing the weight too. Report
For me, exercising is a challenge(time-wise), but the other aspect of living healthier, eating more fruits and veggetables, I think THAT is what has helped me not get sick as much. I consume alot of leafy greens, and have lots of lemons, and a lot of berries. Report
That's strange! I have currently got a really bad cold which began in my Sinuses last Wednesday and has now moved onto my chest. Only this morning I was thinking, how come I'm soooo much healthier now and 6 stones lighter, but still have a cold which has caused me to stay in doors / in bed since last Friday! The wierd thing is, over the past month or so I have been pushing my exercise and someone suggested me to rest! I didn't and now I'm ill. Coincidence?! Perhaps! I generally don't get as ill as I used to before changing my lifestyle!! Report