January 21st, 2011
11:08 AM ET

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

Every weekday, a CNNHealth expert doctor answers a viewer question. On Friday, it's Dr. Melina Jampolis, a physician nutrition specialist.

Question asked by KM of Grandview, Washington:

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?

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.

soundoff (9 Responses)
  1. azwethinkweizei

    I think it's worth pointing out that being outside in cold weather will not cause anyone to get a cold or the flu.

    January 21, 2011 at 11:37 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Bob

      Anything that depresses the immune system, including cold weather, will make one more likely to become ill. So yes, germs cause illness. But you need to realize that some people do not get sick when exposed to germs because they have stronger immune systems. Once their immune systems are depressed they will get sick more often.

      January 21, 2011 at 14:19 | Report abuse |
  2. K Miller

    The article needs to note that not all asthmatics suffer from the cold during the winter. For some it is the reverse. I had severe asthma as a child and all of the doctor recommendations my parents received were that I needed to be in a hot climate and to stay away from the cold as much as possible. However, even though my father told them that the cold weather actually helped me more than the warmer weather, the doctors insisted that was not how asthma would respond. Now, many years later, I have read articles stating the same thing that I experienced. Not all asthmatics can benefit from staying out of cold weather or being in warmer weather. My personal suggestion would be for anyone who suffers from asthma to find a doctor willing to listen to all aspects of the patient's life in relation to the weather, especially the warm and cold months. For me, the autumn and winter seasons are a welcome change because I can breathe better. These are the months that I have very few attacks.

    January 21, 2011 at 11:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. becca

    Getting plenty of rest is important so you can get over your cold.

    January 21, 2011 at 12:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Bob

    There are people with immune deficiencies that need to be careful about exercise. Exercise is known do decrease levels of IGA immediately after exercise. Those with IGA deficiencies are more susceptible to respiratory infections, ear and sinus infections and infections involving the throat. While these deficiencies are rare, 1 in 250 to 500, they do exist. Everyone needs to be aware that exercise can depress the immune system such that some people may become seriously ill after exercising. If someone complains about getting sick after exercise their levels of IGA needs to be checked with the appropriate blood test.

    January 21, 2011 at 14:16 | Report abuse | Reply
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    I'm glad to know that "moderate exercise can actually help prevent colds by increasing the activity of several important disease-fighting cells in your immune system."

    January 21, 2011 at 22:33 | Report abuse | Reply
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  7. Tim

    With all this snow we have been getting there really is no choice but to move the exercise inside. Not just inside, but most of mine is done from home this time of year. This year I have a product that I never knew of in years past, and it's making things a whole lot easier.

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