Should kids be physically active while sick?

Should kids be physically active while sick?

Is your child sick… yet again? Does it feel like there’s a revolving door of illnesses making their way into our home? It’s not just in your imagination. Kids get an average 6 to 8 colds per year and that doesn’t include viruses like COVID, influenza, or the dreaded norovirus (stomach bug) that can wipe out an entire family for days at a time. The colder months of the year are definitely worse for illnesses. With everyone back at school and spending more time inside, illnesses spread like wildfire. Some years are worse than others and it seems that since pandemic restrictions have lifted, certain illnesses have come back with a fiery vengeance. 

As parents it’s heartbreaking to see our kids feeling miserable, and we do our best to give them all the snuggles, nutritious meals, and medication we can to make them feel better. But is there more that parents can do? Should we be encouraging our kids to be physically active while they’re sick? It’s an important question to ask, especially since we know that kids from ages 1 to 4 should get at least 180 minutes per day of moderate to vigorous physical activity and children 5 and over at least 60 minutes

Yes or no: Should kids be active when they’re sick?

The short answer to this question is: it depends. It depends on the kind of sickness your child has and what their symptoms are like. I realize that’s not a very helpful answer; however, in this article you’ll find handy guidelines for knowing if physical activity will benefit your sick child, or not. 

Important: Please remember that these are only guidelines and not expert medical advice. You know your child best. If your child is keen to move around, and it isn’t making their illness worse, then it should be fine. However, if there’s any doubt be sure to consult a healthcare professional.

Physical activity and common colds

The common cold can be caused by more than 200 different viruses! One of the reasons kids get so many colds is that their immune system is still learning how to respond to the plethora of viruses out there. When it comes to being physically active while having a common cold, there’s good news. Yes! Usually kids can still be physically active when they have a common cold. One guideline is that if your child’s symptoms are mild and “above the neck,” like a runny or stuffy nose, sneezing, or a bit of a sore throat, then mild to moderate physical activity is fine. In fact, moving around can even help ease nasal stuffiness and help boost the immune system. However, if your child’s symptoms are “below the neck,” like a cough or other chest symptoms and physical activity makes these symptoms worse, then it’s best to encourage rest.

A girl lies on the couch wrapped in a blanket as she coughs

Physical activity and other respiratory illnesses (influenza, COVID, RSV)

Certain respiratory illnesses have more serious symptoms like a fever, cough, fatigue, achy muscles, and chills. These symptoms are more commonly seen when kids have influenza, COVID, or RSV (respiratory syncytial virus). If your child is experiencing these types of illnesses then the advice is that it’s best to rest. Chances are your child won’t be feeling up to doing much else and that’s alright. However, sometimes children have these illnesses and their symptoms are mild. If that’s the case, follow the guidelines for being physically active described in the section on common colds but keep a close eye on how their symptoms develop over time.

My kids recently had the unpleasant experience of being waylaid by a nasty influenza that lasted two weeks. At first the fatigue and fever had them curled up on the couch, but when that passed the coughing kept them subdued for quite a while. I could tell they were feeling much better when the bickering started up and that’s when I suggested some mild physical activity, which was taking our dog for a walk around the block.

Physical activity and stomach bugs

If your child has nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea, chances are they won’t be going far from the bathroom. Stomach bugs are another illness where it’s best to rest. The concern is that children can get easily dehydrated when their tummies are upset so it’s important to focus on calming the tummy and replacing fluids until their symptoms subside. However, if your child’s stomach bug is mild, they have a sore belly or mild loose bowels, and energy levels are normal, then mild physical activity around your home or yard should be fine. 

Physical activity when your child has a fever

Fevers make parents anxious, me included! However, a fever is not an illness, but an important way that our bodies fight invading viruses or bacteria. While fevers are helpful in fighting illness they can make our kids feel pretty yucky. The general consensus is that physical activity isn’t recommended when kids have a fever. Often moderate- to high-intensity exercise can make the fever worse by heating up the body, so this is another time when it’s best to rest. 

Mother rests a hand on her daughter's forehead as the daughter lies in bed

Physical activities that kids can do while sick

Kids miss about 30% of school because of colds and flus every year which means they’re also missing out on opportunities to be physically active during PE class, recess, and extra-curricular activities. Keeping our kids home while sick is important for their recovery and reducing the spread of illness in the community, but if their symptoms are mild or they are on the road to recovery, encouraging mild to moderate physical activity at home or close to home can be helpful for their overall health and well-being. Here are some good activities for kids that are feeling mildly sick or recovering from a more serious illness.

Encourage active play indoors

It’s so tempting to let our kids lounge in front of a screen when they’re feeling sick, but if their illness is mild, getting them to move indoors is a great idea. One option is to encourage self-directed play. This type of play allows kids to engage in as much physical activity as they are comfortable doing. Another option is to give your child a little inspiration by using some of the ideas in these lists:

Spend time outside 

Encouraging your sick child to go outside is a great option. Air quality outside is usually better than the air quality in our homes, and soaking up some sunshine is great for boosting the immune system. Also, kids tend to be more active outdoors, even when their play is self-directed. Other than encouraging self-directed play, here are some other mild to moderate physical activities you can do with your sick child:

  • Go for a stroll around your neighbourhood
  • Try a nature scavenger hunt—here’s a great one for the fall
  • Visit a play park (that isn’t too busy)

Try gentle yoga or stretching 

Another activity that your child can try when they are sick is some gentle yoga or stretching. Yoga and stretching are great for helping kids feel more calm while helping them work on their coordination, flexibility and gross motor skills. Here are six mood-boosting yoga poses you can do with kids  that will help them feel more calm and relaxed along with some YouTube yoga channels you can check out. 

Physical activities that kids should avoid while sick

My daughter is always bummed when she has to miss out on dance class when she’s sick but, generally speaking, high-intensity physical activities should be avoided if your child is unwell. This includes activities like running, dancing, and swimming lessons. Also, team sports or group lessons are best avoided because kids might push themselves too hard, slowing their recovery, and they’ll be spreading germs to other kids. Thankfully most childhood illnesses are short lived and kids can get back to their regular active routine fairly quickly. 

Key takeaway

It’s never fun when our kids are sick and miss out on school, sports, and more. Don’t worry, soon your child will be back to their regular energetic selves and bouncing off the walls. In the meantime, if your child’s illness is mild, “above the neck,” and your child shows interest in being active, then go ahead and encourage mild to moderate physical activity at home or outdoors as they recover. Most importantly, follow your child’s lead and if in doubt don’t hesitate to contact a healthcare professional.

Read more about what to do when you (or your kids) are sick:

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