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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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It so true! Once I started taking my bik every where I stopped getting colds all the time! woot to fitness Report
Yes! I used to get sick, and by sick I mean REALLY sick about every three months. I would be ill for about 3 weeks, serious bacterial infections, strep throat, and always severe tonsillitis (to the point that I wouldn't be able to eat solid food, and at one point I was so sick of it I BEGGED the doctor to remove them even when I didn't have health insurance). Since I started eating better and exercise I rarely get sick, and when I do it lasts about half the time. In fact my daughter had the flu two weeks ago (not H1N1, but a high fever and stomach virus) and I didn't get sick. Normally I would have been sick with the same thing for days, but I was around her for days caring for her and I never got a temp or even the sniffles. Report
I think it is because if you work out or just simply work hard you have a higher level of stamina and fittness to begin with (and a positive mental attitude) !! Report
Great advice. I plan to give my 23 year old son a copy of this. He works out daily and is a dancer, however sometimes he pushes himself too hard when he is sick. Report
I just did 2 weeks (approx) worth of blogs on this on my page! This is funny how synchronicity works! My fiance had H1N1, my daughter is getting sick now and I was starting to get sick and we had just started working out at a GYM. The fiance was unable to go because he was so ill, but I pushed myself to go in about every other day and do the basics, even though I felt horrible! Turns out, it was the best thing I could have ever done! I'm getting right back into the swing of things and bouncing back faster than I ever have before! Exercise is AWESOME! Report
Exercise certainly seems to help. I haven't been sick much or for long since I got started doing it regularly 2 yrs ago. What's really funny about supplements... I got the trivia question today about what helps prevent colds - Vitamin C, Zinc, Echinacea, none of the above. The answer considered correct is 'none of the above', yet in other articles it is admitted that Echinacea, in particular, is an immune system booster. Better immune system, fewer illnesses, right? Follow the logic... I'm not advocating massive doses, but sufficient vitamin C and zinc in the diet are also going to be part of being healthy - which also helps keep you from getting sick! Like losing weight, finding a balance, eating in a healthy manner, and exercising are GOOD for you and help you stay well! Report
I am a teacher and exposed to many colds, viruses, etc. However, before I became a teacher a few years ago, I was self-employed, which meant that if I got sick, too bad, because I didn't have sick pay. So, I believe that I developed a tough immunity that has carried me through my new profession. Having said this, I do exercise consistently, take many precautions (wash hands, use sanitizer, wipe down anything a "sickie" has touched, get a yearly flu shot, etc.). But I believe with all my power that it's the 20 years spent self-employed that has caused me to develop this immunity against serious "bugs." That's my belief and I'm stiking to it! :) Report
Absolutely - exercise definitely helps the immune system. Report
I've been walking 50 minutes to work almost every weekday for the last several years and haven't been sick in all that time except for a mild cold last month. Report
Funny, hubby and I both got the flu according to our docs, but hubby was much sicker, much longer than I! I attributed it to me working out most days of the week. I didn't get nearly as sick and knew when I couldn't work out during that week. I did try to at least do a 1 mile in home walk video each day, even when I felt my worst. I feel sure it helped me recover much quicker and prevented me from getting it as badly as my poor husband and some of my friends who had it! Yay for exercise! Report
Good article...but some people become obsessive about exercise, and even when sick, will push themselves to work out...where???? At the GYM for one, and at CURVES where I go...SO, I carry my hand gel, and I am GELLING ALOT all the time, BECAUSE OF YOU OUT THERE WHO EXERCISE SICK, and pass it on to the rest of us, who touch our faces with our dirty hands over 40 times a day, the PRIMARY transition point of GERMS to our bodies!!! SO GET GELLING !!! Report
This is so true. It is rare for me to get a cold or the flu. I sleep better after I exercise. this was a good article. Report
Exercise always helps Report
Soooo true! I remember this one woman with whom I used to work. She had the most sick days out of anyone and, of course, when she got sick she always wanted to take some type of cold remedy or get something from the doctor. Report
I sure do feel a lot better, and have a lot more energy, as well. DH who goes to the gym, every second night, has not missed a shift due to sickness in 16 years. He did miss 3 months, when he snapped his achilles tendon in 2003. Thank you, Sparks for giving me, the "boot", I needed. Report
I am getting sick less since getting more active and eating better. However I also have not been working, which means I'm getting more rest and not getting as much exposure to other people who are sick. CubicleLand is absolute breeding ground for illness, especially where air circulation used for heating and cooling. Report
I've definitely been healthier and DH, the couch potato, is always sick. Report
I like that this gives some guidelines that help you determine when to go ahead and workout and when you should rest. I have been sick alot here lately. I am hoping to see my health improve as I get back into the swing of things and get on a regular schedule with my exercise. Report
Great thanks so much !!! Report
Totally agree with the research. Report
I will agree with their research. Report
I know it is true because you are healthier to begin with. Report
Amen to this! And I'd add that being outdoors and breathing fresh air are very important too. I am seldom sick with anything viral.... only just recently had a cold after nearly 4 YEARS of being cold and flu - free.... this time I was indoors ALL weekend, teaching a class of 26 students, and burning the candle at both ends...
it was bound to happen! Take Care! Report
I looked back on my schedule book, and found 3 days last December that I was sick, but since I've been really paying attention to my exercise & food, I don't think I've been sick at all. I know that keeping at the daily routine makes a big difference in how healthy I am. I'm feeling great now!! Report
Ever since I have been exercising I am getting healthier and healthier. The last time I got sick was 13 months ago. I know once I get rid of all this extra weight Ill be flying around instead of just walking. I am 66 going to have a birthday in December and feel better than I did in my forties and fifties. I just got onto sparkpeople Oct. 18, 2009 and love this website. It is extremely encouraging and very important to me. Report
I rather exercise than take any drugs at all.. Sence I have become a healthy person with doing exercise daily & eatting healthy & have not had a cold in 5 years & counting.. I also quit smoking.. (6 yrs ago).. WOOHOO living healthy is GREAT!!! Report
I know for a fact this is true... I don't remember the last time I was sick since I had bronchitis in 2005, before joining SparkPeople! Report
Yes, I do also believe that exercising and especially eating your fruits and veggies - balanced meals helps keep your immune system up there. If you do get sick I don't think it lasts as long becaue you've got what it takes to fight and it won't be as serious. So exercise and eat your fruits and veggies and everything else that keeps you healthy. Report
It states that if you have a head cold it is fine to exercise but i usually don't have any balance when I have a head cold. what do i do? Report
Yes, I have noticed a big difference in my sick time since I started exercising regularly and eating better. I will see just how much in the next few days because I have been around people that have come down with the Swine Flu in the last few days. Report
Yes, since adopting a healthier eating regime and a great exercise program over the past 2 1/2 years, I've noticed a huge improvement in my health. I rarely get colds (2 slight ones over the past two years, maybe), and with my flu shot every year I seem to avoid the flu. I definitely think that becoming more fit has improved my ability to fight off colds and flu. And when I was sick with a head cold, I was able to recover within 2-3 days, rather than the 7-10 days that it used to take. Report
I feel stronger and sleep better when I exercise routinely. It makes sense that I would be able to better resist infections. Report
Well, one of the benefits of a regular exercise program is supposed to be an increased immune system. So, I'm not surprized that this study says that exercise reduces sick time.

I have noticed that I do get fewer colds today then when I was less healthy. I'm not sure if it's the exercise, the healthy eating or maybe both.

I know people who exercise like fiends, but eat horribly. I've noticed they seem to get sick fairly regularly. I do believe exercise can help, but I think healthy eating may have more of an impact.

I've definitely noticed that I'm sick less often since I've been active. I used to be sick several times every fall/winter. Last year, I was sick only once.

I can still feel my body "trying" to come down with stuff, but it fights it off 90% of the time now. I can only assume that the active lifestyle that I've maintained for the last year has made my immune system stronger! Report
I don't need a study (scientific or otherwise) to know that I get colds or ill less often when I am regularly exercising than when I am not. It is unmistakeably obvious, at least in my case. Report
I eat healthful foods, I exercise 3-4 days a week, and was able to nurse my husband through the swine flu without getting it. Of course, I washed my hands every hour or so, but I think that my healthy lifestyle helped me fend off the flu. Just because I'm overweight doesn't mean I'm not getting fit. Report
I got serious on Spark People last December - and joined a gym in the summer. So far, just a couple of stomach viruses, 1 - 2 days at a time. No upper resp infections (yet). I also have been using a Neti pot for several years, and I think that cut way back on the sinus problems I was having before. I'm hoping the weight loss and healthier lifestyle will keep me well this year - I'm an ER nurse and people come in and cough & sneeze in my face, telling me they feel bad. Gee, thanks a lot, fool - now I can get sick, too! Report
I got serious on Spark People last December - and joined a gym in the summer. So far, just a couple of stomach viruses, 1 - 2 days at a time. No upper resp infections (yet). I also have been using a Neti pot for several years, and I think that cut way back on the sinus problems I was having before. I'm hoping the weight loss and healthier lifestyle will keep me well this year - I'm an ER nurse and people come in and cough & sneeze in my face, telling me they feel bad. Gee, thanks a lot, fool - now I can get sick, too! Report
I have been at a healthy weight for me for about a year now. I excercise every day and have for about 2 years. I found that as soon as I started on my activity and lifestyle modification I felt better physically. I really havn't been sick in 2 year. Even when I have had a cold it has been very slight and shorter. My family all had the flu in August, we didn't go in to be tested but figure that it was H1N1 because the symptoms match. I don't think this means I wont ever get sick again but I know I am much healthier than before. Report
i think a lot of it also depends if you are around people too. I am heavier than my husband and get less colds. Purell...purell....I am addicted to it Report
Yep! I hardly ever get sick now! Report
last week i had a really really bad head cold (my family had the flu i got lucky), my docter told me to keep walking, just take some daywuil before i went because i walk around a lake and it had gotten cold this past week, today i am completly over it, so doesw excersize work? i say yes. Report
Although I have not gotten as sick since I started taking Flu shots many years ago, I can say that since I started walking daily I am almost never sick these days. I used to get sick about once a winter but thankfully it has been a few years now.

*knock on wood* Report
I just went to see my pulmonary specialist because I caught a cold and my asthma flared up. I haven't been there since May 2008, so she made me come in so she could prescribe meds. I'm pretty happy that I've been able to be so healthy, but feel fortunate too. As a teacher of 4th graders, it's not always easy to avoid, "the bugs". Finally doing something right! Report
Darn it! There goes my excuse for tomorrow (again). Report
Its amazing that now that I am at my goal weight and have been excersing and walking daily I haven't had a cold in months. mmmm, maybe there something to eating healty and exercising after all. Report
I didn't get sick often before getting fit and healthier. But now I am rarely sick if I feel bad one night I am usually better the next morning. I have not had a cold since beginning my cycling and strength traning program. Report
My husband got a cold last Saturday. I got it last Tuesday. I'm feeling better. He's not. I've been traveling for work, which makes me tired, but I've still been walking (instead of running), and I really think that's why I'm better and he's not! Report
Finally back on the exercise wagon after taking an un-scheduled 7 day break for H1N1 invasion. For sure my cardio is not up to what is was before being ill. I tire very quickly. Added more strength training (with lighter weights to compensate.) Report