Exercise and the Common Cold

If you're looking for a safe way to prevent colds, regular exercise may be the ticket. And you don't have to run a marathon, either. Moderate activity is all you need.

Exercise improves your overall fitness, which can help boost your immune system -- the body's defense against infections.

Some studies show that "moderate intensity" exercise may cut down the number of colds you get. That type of activity includes things like a 20- to 30-minute walk every day, going to the gym every other day, or biking with your kids a few times a week.

In one study in the American Journal of Medicine, women who walked for a half-hour every day for 1 year had half the number of colds as those who didn't exercise. Researchers found that regular walking may lead to a higher number of white blood cells, which fight infections.

In another study, researchers found that in 65-year-olds who did regular exercise, the number of T-cells -- a specific type of white blood cell -- was as high as those of people in their 30s.

Should You Exercise When You Have a Cold?

It's usually safe to do it as long as you listen to your body. You'll need to watch out for certain risky situations.

Physical activity increases your heart rate, but so can some cold medicines. So a combo of exercise and decongestants can cause your heart to pump very hard. You may become short of breath and have trouble breathing.

If you have asthma and a cold, make sure you talk with your doctor before you exercise. It may cause you to cough and wheeze more and make you short of breath.

When your cold comes with a fever, exercise could stress your body even more. So wait a few days to get back to your regular exercise program.

Also be careful about working out too hard when you have a cold. It can make you feel worse and slow down your recovery.

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Too Much Exercise May Increase Colds

It's not a problem for most of us, but if you're an exercise fiend, make sure you take time for rest and recovery after periods of intense training.

Your immune system works best when it isn't stressed. Scientists say athletes who train intensely without building in recovery time are more likely to get colds or flu.

When workouts get too strenuous, the number of infection-fighting white blood cells in your body can go down. At the same time, your stress hormone cortisol may go up, which may interfere with the ability of certain immune cells to work right.

When Should You Call the Doctor About Exercise and Colds?

If you exercise with a cold, call your doctor if you notice:

  • Your chest is more congested.
  • You cough and wheeze.

Stop your activity and get emergency medical help if you:

  • Feel chest tightness or pressure
  • Have trouble breathing or get very short of breath
  • Get lightheaded or dizzy
  • Have problems with balance
WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Jennifer Robinson, MD on January 20, 2015

Sources

SOURCES:

Medline Plus: "Exercise and Immunity."

American College of Sports Medicine: "Exercise and the Common Cold."

MedicineNet: "Exercise Restraint When Sick."

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