There are a lot of unknowns and misinformation out there regarding COVID-19. It can be hard to know then if you can still do your daily exercise if you’ve been diagnosed with the virus. I’m here to give you the details – but bottom line is: for the most part, you can! In fact, it will likely prevent you from developing worse symptoms.
Basics about Coronavirus
This is a virus – so it’s not a living organism. Viruses are either made of DNA or RNA protected by a coat of protein (and sometimes lipids). The coronavirus is made of RNA, which is essentially less-stable DNA.
There are in general two phases of this COVID19 disease:
- When the coronavirus touches the inside of your mouth or nose from breathing it in when someone sneezes, your cells don’t know the difference between the coronavirus RNA and your own RNA. So your cells start making coronavirus proteins without knowing.
- This is usually when you have symptoms such as sore throat, dry cough, body aches, fatigue, and loss of taste/smell.
- Your body then slowly realizes that lots of foreign RNA and protein is being made and starts to attack it. This starts a huge buildup of white blood cells which attack all foreign invaders in the body.
- The white blood cells themselves produce many, many different proteins to identify and attack and kill the virus – this process is known as “inflammation”.
- Sometimes the body can over-respond in this way. This is when you get symptoms like diarrhea, shortness of breath, and cough where you cough up lots of phlegm.
- ARDS, or acute respiratory distress syndrome, is specifically the effect of over-inflammation in the lungs, seen commonly in the severe COVID19 cases.
- In very severe cases, this inflammation can also lead to multi-organ failure which is why it is so deadly.
There is still a lot of research into the mechanisms behind all these symptoms and effects but this is the current understanding of the disease process.
*Internet Medical Advice:
Obviously, this is the internet. While I am a doctor, I am not your doctor. This is meant as general advice for overall healthy, active adults.
Be sure to ask your own doctor if you are healthy enough for exercise.
Especially if you have medical problems that effect the lungs or your immune system (like asthma, COPD, diabetes, HIV, heart failure, kidney disease, and many others), this virus will likely effect you more severely and you need to be in closer contact with your primary care physician.
Exercise is prevention
There are many studies that show exercise, especially regular moderate-intensity exercise can actually protect you against more severe symptoms of common cold and flu viruses (Martin, 2009). Since coronavirus is in fact a type of cold virus, this very likely applies here as well.
Additionally, regular, moderate exercise has been shown to decrease several inflammation markers that are specifically linked to ARDS (the bad inflammatory lung disease) in Coronavirus (Yan, 2020).
This is a great article that goes into more detail about how exercise effects specific proteins and effects in the body to prevent illness.
One of the remarkable things about this COVID-19 disease is that it effects people so differently and causes many different symptoms.
Luckily, the vast majority of people only have very mild symptoms.
The best way to think about whether you can still exercise is based on what symptoms you are having.
Sore throat, dry cough, or loss of taste/smell
One of the most common recommendations we can make for cold and flu viruses in general is that if your symptoms are all in your neck and above, it’s okay to continue to exercise as normal.
The dry cough we are talking about here is a cough from a tickle in the back of your throat (not from mucus stuck in your lungs). You may cough out a very small amount of mucus and that’s okay.
Exercise will even make your sore throat feel better temporarily while working out.
It is generally safe for you to go full intensity on workouts if you’re only dealing with a sore throat or dry cough.
But you really need to ensure you are getting proper rest time if you do. Getting enough rest eliminates the added burden of inflammation from the work out.
As we learned above, inflammation is what causes the bad symptoms in this disease.
For this reason, it can be a good idea to go at 80-90% intensity to ensure your rest time is adequate to recover.
Body Aches or Fatigue
Body aches and fatigue are generally signs that your immune system has started to ramp up pretty heavily to fight off the disease.
This involves quite a lot of effort and energy.
Exercise still has a protective effect at this point (meaning it can still prevent bad inflammation and dangerous symptoms later on).
However, as this means that your body is under quite a bit more stress fighting off the virus, you’ll want to do 1/4-1/2 of your normal exercise intensity.
If you normally run, go for a walk. If you normally lift weights, do some light body weight exercises. If you normally do HIIT, do a low-impact, low-intensity warm-up type routine.
The biggest concern with diarrhea is dehydration. You can lose A LOT of fluid very quickly when you have diarrhea.
Advisory: I spend almost all day at work talking to people about their poop. I’m not afraid to talk to you straight about your poop. This is probably more explicit poop-talk than you normally see on the internet.
You need to tailor your workouts to the amount of diarrhea you’re having.
If you’re only having one or two episodes per day, you can likely still work out as long as you are rehydrating plenty. You need to rehydrate about twice as much (or more) as you normally drink. Even in this case, exercise is still protective but you should be doing light workouts as your body is already under more stress than normal.
As above, if you normally run, go for a walk. If you normally lift weights, do some light body weight exercises. If you normally do HIIT, do a low-impact, low-intensity warm-up type routine.
If you are having diarrhea more than twice per day, you need to rest. You need to focus 100% on rehydrating and you should not be exercising. If you feel lightheaded, confused, short of breath, or have difficulty moving or walking, these are signs that your dehydration is too severe and you need to go to the hospital for IV fluids.
Shortness of Breath or Productive Cough
The productive cough we are talking about here is when you feel like there is something stuck in your chest or when you cough up lots of mucus or fluid.
If you’re feeling short of breath, it often means that there is so much inflammation in your lungs that swelling in the tiny air spaces blocks the air from reaching your blood and you can’t get oxygen or get rid of carbon dioxide.
If you are feeling either short of breath or coughing up lots of mucus or fluid, you definitely should NOT be exercising.
In fact, you probably should go to the hospital.
You may need oxygen if you aren’t getting enough or possibly medicines to help decrease the inflammation.
Luckily, most healthy adults are only getting mild symptoms from coronavirus infections and you can likely still exercise as normal or at partial intensity if you’re affected. Don’t hesitate to ask your primary doctor more about exercising when sick and consider going to the hospital urgently if you are concerned about more severe symptoms.
- Martin, S. A., Pence, B. D., & Woods, J. A. (2009). Exercise and respiratory tract viral infections. Exercise and sport sciences reviews, 37(4), 157–164. https://doi.org/10.1097/JES.0b013e3181b7b57b
- Yan, Z., & Spaulding, H.R. (2020). Extracellular superoxide dismutase, a molecular transducer of health benefits of exercise. Redox biology. doi:10.1016/j.redox.2020.101508