Exercise Woes: 9 Common Challenges

When you’re not feeling 100 percent up to snuff, is working out helpful or harmful? Experts weigh in on what you should do when you’re sick, hungover, recovering from COVID-19, or otherwise feeling blah.

Feeling under the weather? There are some circumstances where giving your body a rest is more important than getting a workout. We all know moving more is generally good for health. But more is not always better when it comes to exercise — and there are indeed times when doctors and fitness professionals say taking it easy may be the best option. But it’s not always easy to make the call on whether you should stick with that sweat session or give your body a break for the day. If you didn’t sleep well last night, you’re feeling slightly under the weather, or you just got your COVID-19 vaccine, here’s what experts advise doing:

1. You Have a Cold, and Your Nose Is Running Like a Faucet

The Verdict Sweat it out

The Rationale As long as you don’t have a fever and you feel like doing it, you’re cleared to exercise, says Susan L. Besser, MD, primary care provider at Mercy Medical Center in Overlea, Maryland. Just keep the workout intensity light to moderate — think walking or exercising on an elliptical — and make sure you’re staying hydrated. “If you’re sick, you’re already dehydrated, so you need to drink plenty of water when you exercise,” she says.

Yet if you have a fever, defined as a temperature of 100.5 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, or you’re coughing and hacking, sit this exercise session out until you’re feeling better. And by all means, if you have the flu or another more severe viral infection, do what your body wants and rest. Otherwise, you could potentially negatively affect your immune system, which isn’t a good thing. And if you participate in a group class or around others, it is responsible to hold off to avoid potential exposure to whatever infection you may be fighting.

2. You’re Experiencing Fatigue After a COVID-19 Diagnosis

The Verdict Skip it

The Rationale If you’ve been diagnosed with COVID-19, go ahead and give yourself permission to skip your workouts until you’re rested and healed up — especially if you’re showing the most common symptoms of COVID-19, which include fever, dry cough, and fatigue, according to the World Health Organization. And across the board, experts recommend caution when it comes to returning to exercise after COVID-19. It’s a new illness, and research is still revealing how and when complications occur. Exercising while you’re experiencing COVID-19 symptoms may worsen the infection and lead to additional complications, says James Borchers, MD, a sports medicine doctor at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus. “What we know so far about the virus shows us that everyone responds differently,” he says.

James N. Robinson, MD, a primary sports medicine doctor at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City, suggests waiting 7 to 10 days after you start to feel better to pick up exercise again.

It’s also a good idea to consult with your doctor about getting back into your previous fitness routine because some people will need to take it slower, particularly those with other preexisting heart or respiratory conditions, adds Dr. Borchers. 3. You Partied a Little Too Hard Last Night, and You Have a Hangover

3. You Partied a Little Too Hard Last Night, and You Have a Hangover

The Verdict Skip it

The Rationale If you’re feeling wretched, exercise will only make you feel worse, especially if you’re experiencing dizziness or nausea. “You could dehydrate yourself even more, and that could compound how bad you feel,” says Ashley Fagan, DO, internal medicine physician at Texas Health Family Care in Grapevine. As the day progresses and if you start feeling better, you could always try a light activity, like walking or yoga. Just keep that reusable water bottle nearby; having a hangover can dehydrate you.

4. You Tossed and Turned and Got Almost No Sleep Last Night

The Verdict Sleep it off

The Rationale If working out means that you’re going to have to skimp on sleep, it’s best to skip the gym. “Sleep should always take priority over exercise,” Dr. Besser says. “Being sleep deprived can be as bad as being on drugs or alcohol, as you won’t be thinking clearly and can’t focus or concentrate.” Instead of working out, stay in bed a little longer or go to bed earlier.

5. You Woke Up With a Little Twinge in Your Back

The Verdict Depends

The Rationale this one depends on whether you’re dealing with a muscular issue or one that’s related to nerves, Dr. Fagan says. Because you won’t know until you start moving, try a low-impact activity like walking and don’t ramp up too fast. If you’re feeling better as you start moving — “if it’s muscular, movement can help stretch and loosen tight areas,” she explains — keep at it. However, if your back continues to send you warning signs, give yourself another day to recover. If it’s still bothering you or you have full-fledged back pain, see a doctor, Besser says.

6. You Took a New Fitness Class Yesterday, and Now You’re Super Sore

The Verdict Sweat it out

The Rationale If it’s truly just muscle soreness from a new class, moving the next day is fine, although you might have to change your workout. “Think about doing an activity that your muscles are already familiar with or that’s less intense or uses different muscles,” says JJ Flizanes, a personal trainer in Beverly Hills, California, and author of The Invisible Fitness Formula.

Epsom salt baths, massage, and light yoga can also help relieve soreness, Flizanes adds. If, however, you feel any type of joint pain, this could indicate that you pushed yourself so hard that you have inflammation in the body. That pain is a red flag to stop and rest, as doing more won’t fix the issue and could make things worse.

7. You’re Stressed Beyond Belief — Not Even Ben & Jerry’s Is Helping

The Verdict Sweat it out

The Rationale Exercise is one of the best stress busters, which is why you should move today. “That exercise will take your mind off your worries, and the endorphins your body releases from exercising will help lower your stress,” Besser says. Pick an activity like walking or elliptical training that allows you to listen to music, and do it for 20 or 30 minutes. The repetitive movement will further soothe the brain.

Better yet? Take your workout outside; a study published in September 2019 in Mental Health & Prevention found that outdoor exercise environments were perceived as more calming, and exercise sessions in more calming environments were linked to greater stress reduction.

Strength training can also cut that stress, especially if you need to get out some aggression, Besser adds. If you can’t commit to a full-length workout because you’re crunched for time, even a 10-minute workout can quell stress.

8. You’ve Just Gotten Your COVID-19 Vaccine

The Verdict Depends

The Rationale Now that all adults and children over age 12 in the United States are eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine, you might be wondering whether your immunization will impact your exercise routine – or vice versa. There’s no evidence to suggest that exercising before or after getting your vaccine will make it less effective, so you don’t necessarily need to postpone your workout after your dose, according to the Cleveland Clinic. But if vaccine side effects leave you feeling fatigued or not up to your normal workout, listen to your body and skip your workout until you do feel up to it.

Per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), some commonly-reported side effects of the COVID-19 vaccine include redness, pain, and swelling at the injection site (usually the upper arm), as well as tiredness, headache, muscle pain, chills, fever, and nausea.

It’s hard to predict which of these you’ll experience, if any, but the CDC notes that none should last longer than a few days, and taking certain over-the-counter medications (like ibuprofen, acetaminophen, aspirin, or antihistamines) can help address any discomfort so you can get back to your regular activities.

9. You Hit Happy Hour After Work, but You Don’t Want to Miss Cycling Class

The Verdict Depends

The Rationale this one’s too hard to make a blanket statement about without considering several variables, including how much you had to drink and if you were hydrating. “If you’ve only had one drink and you were drinking water at the same time, even better if you ate something to help slow down the absorption of alcohol, it’s probably okay to exercise,” Besser says.

Consider waiting about an hour or two after sipping that cocktail, though, to give your body a little more time to clear the alcohol. Just note that if you arrive at the class dehydrated, the workout will probably feel tougher than normal. However, if you’ve had two glasses or you’re feeling tipsy or drunk, skip that workout or else you’ll jeopardize your safety.