A Little Exercise May Help That Head Cold

Carol Krucoff is a veteran health care journalist. She writes a regular column about health and fitness for the Washington Post

If you’re the kind of exerciser who’s so hooked on working out that you’ve skipped a visit from Santa to attend aerobics class, you probably wouldn’t let a stuffy nose or scratchy throat keep you from your daily activity “fix.”

New research suggests that it’s OK, maybe even beneficial, to do moderate aerobic activity when you’re fighting a cold.

“Exercising moderately when you have a cold doesn’t appear to alter the severity or duration of the illness,” says Thomas G. Weidner, director of the athletic training education program at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind. Weidner examined 50 people who were inoculated with a cold virus and compared the symptoms of 34 who exercised moderately every other day with 16 who didn’t exercise. After 10 days, the two groups showed no difference in symptoms as reported by questionnaires and determined by “mucous weights” of their used facial tissues.


“This finding is important for athletes and fitness enthusiasts alike who want to maintain their fitness levels when they have an upper respiratory tract infection caused by a rhinovirus,” says Weidner, whose study was published in a recent issue of the journal Medicine & Science in Sport & Exercise.

Weidner cautions that his research applies only to infections caused by rhinoviruses, which account for about 40% to 50% of colds. “We speculate that the findings might also apply to all of the so-called ‘head colds,’ ” he says. “But more research is needed.”


Exercising moderately with a head cold is “probably acceptable and, some researchers would even argue, beneficial,” notes a statement on “exercise and the common cold” released earlier this year by the American College of Sports Medicine. But if you have a fever or other flu symptoms such as muscle aches, swollen lymph glands and / or extreme tiredness, the ACSM experts recommend “bed rest and a gradual progression to normal training.”

“Why go up against Mother Nature?” says Dr. E. Randy Eichner, a marathon runner and professor of medicine at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center. “It’s foolhardy to do a workout when your system is calling for rest.” And it could be dangerous too, he notes, since some viruses can invade the heart.

Because many competitive athletes find the stress of missing a workout worse than the stress of exercising when they feel sick, Eichner developed this “neck check”:

* Below the neck: Don’t exercise when you have below-the-neck symptoms such as fever, muscle aches or a hacking cough that produces phlegm in your throat.

* Above the neck: You may exercise if you have only above-the-neck symptoms, such as a runny nose, sneezing and scratchy throat. But take a “test drive” first. Start your workout at half speed. If your head seems to clear and you feel peppy, it’s OK to finish. But if you feel like you’re running through sand, go back home and rest.


Regular moderate exercise may help prevent colds, according to research by David C. Nieman, professor of health and exercise science at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C. One of his most recent studies showed that women who walked for 45 minutes five days a week for 12 weeks suffered half as many days of cold and flu symptoms as a nonexercising control group. The research, published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise confirmed findings of Nieman’s earlier work.

“There are immunological alterations that occur with exercise,” notes Nieman, who was lead author of the ACSM statement on exercise and colds. “If exercise is moderate, it encourages the spread of beneficial immune cells throughout the body and improves protection against pathogens.”

If exercise is excessive, however, it can stress the immune system and leave an athlete more vulnerable to infection immediately after intense activity. For example, researchers who examined marathoners before and after the athletes had run for two or three hours found that a steep drop in immune function occurred, lasting at least six to nine hours.

Think of it this way, Nieman suggests: The immune system is like a police force, patrolling the bloodstream for intruders such as cold viruses. When you take a walk, it’s like giving the cops a cup of coffee. Moderate exercise prompts immune cells to start circulating at a greater rate than normal, which increases their chance of running into the bad guys.

But when you do excessive exercise, it’s like giving the cops beer. Exhausted muscles need fuel and repair, putting the immune system cops under so much stress that they become too confused to do their job well.

Other factors also may impair immune function, including mental stress, poor nutrition, lack of sleep, cigarette smoking and aging. But being fit may offset some of the immune system decline associated with age.

Like anyone, exercisers can reduce their risk of catching colds by practicing good health habits, such as hand washing. But if they are doing excessive activity, they may also help ward off infection by keeping their bodies fueled during exercise.

“Something as simple as drinking a liter of sports drink per hour appears to help the immune system cope with intense exercise,” says Nieman, who has run 58 marathons. “It’s like telling the immune system, ‘There’s enough fuel here, so don’t get so excited.’ ”