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How can I exercise safely in winter when I have a cold?

Asked by KM, Grandview, Washington

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Like everyone else, I am intent on losing weight in the new year. I am in my mid-20s, very overweight, and trying to change back to the healthy lifestyle I used to have. My specific concern is about walking in the cold, with a cold.

I really love walking, so I'm making it a major component of my workout plan (along with weight lifting, and healthier eating), but I am on the tail end of a cold right now, and when I come inside from a walk, my cough is much worse and sometimes my ears hurt. I love walking in the cold (the weather is in the teens and 20s) and don't want to give it up, but I also don't want to make myself sicker. I know I could use a treadmill, but the truth is that I hate them and I get bored no matter what I do. I'll almost certainly get another cold this season, so what do I need to do to keep myself healthy outside in the winter?

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Diet and Fitness Expert Dr. Melina Jampolis Physician Nutrition Specialist

Expert answer

Hi KM -- First of all, congratulations on beginning the journey back to a healthy lifestyle. It sounds like you have the right approach (walking, weight lifting, and healthy eating) and a great attitude. Your question is a very good one and since the weather isn't going to be improve for a while in most parts of the country, I thought it would be a good time to answer it.

Moderate exercise can actually help prevent colds by increasing the activity of several important disease-fighting cells in your immune system. So your healthy lifestyle should help you get fewer colds this winter. If you do get another cold, there are a few things to consider when deciding whether it is a good idea to walk outside. If you have a fever, I would take a few days off from exercising, as the stress of exercise, particularly in the freezing cold, could hinder your recovery. If you have asthma or bronchitis, the cold could trigger worsening of symptoms including wheezing and cough, so if this happens, it is probably best to keep your workouts inside, or talk to your doctor about temporarily adjusting or changing your medications. Since you get bored on the treadmill, maybe you could find a lively workout video to do instead. There are a lot of great ones out there with fun music that don't require any specific skills.

In your case, it sounds like the cold outside air may be triggering a little reaction in your lungs, leading to your increased coughing, and the ear pain could be due to nasal congestion. You can try taking a decongestant before exercising, but pay close attention to your heart rate (don't let it get too high) as some decongestants can increase your heart rate and this could be made worse by exercise (although at your age, it is not as big a concern).

If your cough seems to be triggered more by the heat when re-entering your home, it may be due to dry air, so a humidifier might be helpful. It may also be helpful to have a cup of tea after your walk, as the steam could help relax you and hydrate your nasal and bronchial passages. In addition, tea is loaded with disease-fighting antioxidants.

If you get sick again or if the cough or shortness of breath persists, it is important to consult your physician. My colleague, lung specialist Dr. Jamie Bigelow, points out that "some people will not equate post-exercise symptoms with actually being sick. Exercise-induced symptoms means that some low grade inflammation is cooking, just waiting to cause bronchospasm (narrowing of your lung passages) and may merit maintenance therapy." Cough or shortness of breath after exercise, with or without a cold, could represent asthma, and your doctor can help with effective treatment.

At this point, it's probably safe to continue your walks even with a mild to moderate cold, as long as your cough doesn't worsen and you don't begin to feel lightheaded, dizzy or short of breath.

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