Get Some Rest: Is This the Worst Advice a Sick Person Can Get?

In states of illness, it's often suggested to get some rest to promote recovery. But is this a good decision? Find out here!
Get Some Rest: Is This the Worst Advice a Sick Person Can Get?
Leonardo Biolatto

Reviewed and approved by the doctor Leonardo Biolatto.

Written by Editorial Team

Last update: 08 June, 2023

Since ancient times – and to this day -, many health professionals suggest rest as part of the recovery process from illnesses or injuries. The aim is to reduce symptoms, but also to avoid possible complications. But is this really a good idea?

Depending on the health problem, it’s often recommended to remain inactive for hours, days, or weeks. And while this initially brings a sense of well-being and security, there’s growing evidence that it can also be counterproductive. Find out what the research says here.

Resting during periods of illness: Is this good medical advice?

The idea of resting to promote the body’s recovery from illness has been around for centuries. In ancient Greece, Hippocrates (the father of medicine) described that rest and immobility were decisive in favoring the body’s natural healing process.

This recommendation has been extended to the present day, so it’s common for doctors to suggest periods of rest in the presence of injuries and illnesses. The idea is to have energy reserves and avoid stress loads that can affect the immune system functions.

Also, the aim is to keep patients in a safe environment, where they aren’t exposed to factors that can worsen their condition or lead to other complications. But when do this rest and isolation become counterproductive?

Well, to answer these questions, it’s necessary to take into account what the disease is and what limitations it causes in the affected persons. Rest itself is not “the worst medical advice”, as some may claim, but its implementation has been misinterpreted in many cases.

The truth of the matter is that there are conditions in which rest – whether partial or total – is necessary for good rehabilitation. In other cases, keeping active can bring more benefits than remaining immobile.

The physician can advise you on the best option, depending on the disease, symptoms, or age, among other factors. At the moment, some form of physical activity is being incorporated into various treatments, as there’s evidence that it can be beneficial.

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Examples where staying active is better than resting

To cite a few examples, it’s worth mentioning the case of patients with low back pain. Often, these people experience a sense of relief with a little rest. However, evidence suggests that restricting activity – including bed rest – doesn’t provide any benefit.

Instead, it prolongs the recovery period and prevents a prompt resumption of daily activities. In this regard, research shared via Healthcare determined that exercise and physical activity improves the flexibility of back muscles, tendons, and ligaments. It also increases one’s range of motion and supports patients’ functional movement.

Staying active is also beneficial in the face of some viral conditions, such as the flu and colds. Research shared through Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews states that moderate-intensity exercise induces anti-inflammatory and immunopotentiation actions that aid recovery.

A similar finding is reported by the Mayo Clinic which in one of its publications details that mild to moderate physical activity can increase the feeling of well-being in case of a common cold without fever. Its practice helps to reduce nasal congestion and mild respiratory difficulties.

Other conditions also seem to improve their prognosis with the practice of physical activity. Such is the case of concussion, where symptom improvement has been shown with aerobic exercise in a controlled environment.

A review of studies reported in Current Sports Medicine Reports concluded that individualized aerobic exercise is a useful nonpharmacologic intervention in concussion. This challenges the long-held belief of maintaining prolonged rest in these patients to achieve recovery.

In itself, a progressive training program in which the threshold of symptom exacerbation is considered to determine what activities these patients tolerate has been found to help both improve health and hasten return to activity.

So, should I exercise while sick?

The answer to this question is “it depends”.

As long as the disease doesn’t prevent it, staying active brings more benefits than risks. In fact, when people are already used to exercising, stopping the activity may make them feel worse. Still, it’s not a matter of going from one extreme to the other.

What does this mean? It’s also not about subjecting the body to routines that demand too much effort. When training is strenuous, it generates a stress response in the body that is reflected at the muscular, respiratory, and cardiac levels.

Under normal conditions, the body adapts easily to such stress. Thus, progressively, the physical condition improves. However, when going through disease processes, this can exceed the efforts that the immune system can make.

Therefore, it’s essential that the physical activity performed is light or moderate. There is no reason to stay in bed, but the movements or activity should not exceed the capacity of the body in this state.

Here are some ways to stay active. Of course, the choice of one activity or another will depend on your health condition. If in doubt, you can consult your doctor.

  • Dancing
  • Gardening
  • Riding a bicycle
  • Swimming
  • Yoga or tai chi
  • Stretching
  • Doing housework
  • Walking (preferably outdoors)

A review of studies shared in the Journal of Sport and Health Science supports that physical exercise is an important adjuvant of the immune system. This is because it enhances anti-pathogenic activity, has anti-inflammatory properties, and stimulates white blood cell production.

In turn, evidence gathered points to the fact that high training workloads and unusually intense exertion can cause transient immune disturbances. Hence the importance of avoiding strenuous activity in episodes of illness.

How to exercise safely if you’re sick

At this point, it should be clear that rest isn’t the worst medical advice, but neither is it the best option in the case of certain health conditions. It all depends on the diagnosis and the limitations that the symptoms may cause.

If you choose to do physical activity or exercise, you should take certain precautions.

When dealing with a chronic condition or injury, the choice of one activity or another should be made in the company of the doctor or specialist. If necessary, he or she can refer you to professionals such as a physical therapist for a more individualized routine.

In milder cases, such as a cold, any mild to moderate physical activity may help. However, if fever and prolonged fatigue are present, it’s best to avoid overexertion. Once these symptoms improve, you can resume your routine.

Some recommendations to put into practice are the following:

  • Reduce the intensity and duration of workouts. About 20 minutes is sufficient to obtain the benefits of exercise.
  • Avoid exercise if symptoms such as intense coughing, fever, and stomach discomfort are present.
  • In case of contagious infections (such as influenza, for example), avoid exercising with other people. In addition, it’s advisable to reinforce measures such as hand washing and the use of masks.

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What to do if you must be on bed rest

There are certain conditions in which bed rest – either for days or weeks – is the only option. Some injuries, surgeries, and illnesses force you to suspend much of your movement.

Even so, there are some things you can do to avoid complete inactivity. These include the following:

  • Change position in bed, at least every two hours. This can be decisive to avoid the appearance of ulcers.
  • Do joint mobility exercises. For example, stretch your legs and arms, make circular movements with your head, flex and stretch your elbows, and bring your knees to your chest, among others. Your doctor can guide you on how to perform these activities.
  • Do breathing exercises. Deep, slow breathing not only benefits immune health, but also reduces anxiety and stress associated with immobility.

What to remember

The idea of resting during episodes of illness has changed over time. It’s now known that, under certain conditions, total inactivity can cause more harm than good.

Therefore, as long as the disease makes it possible, patients are encouraged to engage in some form of physical activity. However, this should be light to moderate, as strenuous exercise can overwhelm the body’s ability to respond to stress.

That said, the general rule of thumb is to be guided by symptoms and use common sense. If necessary, a doctor or physical therapist can be consulted to guide the activity.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.