Confession: I ask myself should I really go work out? at least once a week. And 90 percent of the time, I end up telling myself to suck it up, buttercup—and am almost always grateful I pushed through my own inertia. Because sure enough, almost 100 percent of the time I do that I feel more clear-headed and confident after my workout. But that doesn’t mean there’s never a real reason to ditch regularly scheduled workout plans: While exercise can improve your mood and boost your energy, sometimes the benefits actually don’t outweigh the reason to skip it.
If you’ve ever found yourself Googling “should I work out if [insert dilemma here],” this list is for you. We asked the experts for simple guidelines on when you should forego that boot camp class or strength-training session (or at least take it a little easier, instead of going for a hardcore sweat).
Of course, you should always follow your doctor’s advice first and foremost, but here are six times it’s actually smart to play gym hooky and five times you should opt for a lower-intensity workout.
Skip your workout if…
1. You’re sleep deprived. Even though exercise can give you a boost when you’re feeling low on energy, getting your zzz’s is an extremely important part of a fitness routine. “Exercise is a physical stress applied to the body, and muscles get stronger in the period after the workout when the body is repairing the damage,” explains exercise physiologist Pete McCall, host of the All About Fitness podcast.
Working out when you’re super tired not only means you probably won’t have the energy to go as hard, but you also have a bigger chance of hurting yourself. “Too much fatigue can reduce motor skills and increase the risk of injury, especially in a movement-based class like Zumba, kickboxing, or CrossFit,” says McCall (as opposed to a more stationary workout, like indoor cycling).
Ultimately, the answer to the sleep-versus-workout dilemma comes down to the individual, but as a rule of thumb, McCall recommends choosing a nap instead if you’ve gotten three to five nights of minimal sleep or you’re running on five hours or less. “Less than five hours of sleep can affect reaction times and cognitive function, both of which are critical for optimal performance during exercise,” he explains.
2. You might be injured. If you’re sore the day after a tough workout, exercise can actually help you recover by increasing circulation, which speeds healing, according to McCall. Injury’s an entirely different story, though. “Pain is a physical sign that something is wrong. Doctors use a one to 10 scale of pain, where one is no pain and 10 is excruciating. If a muscle is sore, around a three to five on the scale, then light movement is good. But if a muscle is in pain, think a six or above, then too much movement can place a lot of stress on the tissue and keep it from properly healing.” (Here are some other ways to tell the difference between soreness and injury.)
Not only do you risk further injury, but you could also injure other muscles or joints as your body tries to compensate. “A muscle that’s injured will be inflamed. This will keep it from working properly and can change the way the attached joints function,” says McCall. “Trying to work through muscle pain could cause other parts of the body to become injured, so it’s just not worth it. Let it heal, and if it hurts after more than a few days of rest then see a doctor.”
3. You’re sick. “Fever is an indication that your body is working hard to defeat a foreign invader,” says McCall. If you’re dealing with a full-blown illness, you want your body to be putting its energy toward getting better, not dealing with the stress of exercise. Plus, you don’t want to spread your germs at the gym (or pick up any more for your body to handle). “Feeling sick is an indication that something is wrong, so listen to your body and respect it. It’s better to take two to four days off and fully recover than to have a lingering illness for an extended period of time,” says McCall.
4. You just had a treatment at the dermatologist. “I ask my patients to wait 24 hours before exercising after any injectable treatment such as fillers or Botox, and also after many laser, microneedling, or other treatments that may damage the skin surface temporarily,” says dermatologist Jessica Krant, M.D., founder of Art of Dermatology in NYC. “We want the injected materials to stay in place for a couple of days to be set in, or absorbed, and we want any tiny needle punctures to heal to minimize the risk of increased bruising,” she explains.
5. You’re insanely sunburnt. Chances are, you know that getting scorched by the sun is pretty unsafe in the long term, but your body needs some TLC in the short-term too—and this means skipping your workout if you’re really red. “With extreme sunburn, there is a risk of heatstroke, sunstroke, imbalance of electrolytes and body fluid management, and overheating,” warns Krant. “It should be handled with rest, hydration, and soothing creams until everything settles. I would say wait about 48 hours before judging if the skin has calmed down and you feel well enough to exercise.”
6. You just got a spray tan. OK, so maybe this isn’t a health reason to skip your workout, but if you’ve spent the cash on a spray tan you’re probably not looking for a streaky, messy look. “A traditional self tan requires eight hours to fully develop, so you should not go to the gym or shower while the tan is developing,” says Sophie Evans, St. Tropez skin finishing expert. Unless you’re using an express formula that some salons offer, wait eight hours, then rinse off so the color stays even, and then you’re safe to sweat it out.
Skip your intense workout and try light activity if…
7. You’re just feeling a little under the weather. Like McCall says, you should still skip your workout if you’re full-on sick, but keeping up with your routine with some light exercise when you’re just feeling a little ‘ick’ should be fine (and might make you feel a little more like yourself again). “Lower intensity is better—you can burn some energy, but too much intensity can downgrade your immune system. So a long, fast paced walk=good, but high-intensity cycling=not good,” says McCall.
8. You just got a bikini wax. Be strategic about your workouts post-wax—after all, you’ve been through enough pain already. “I would definitely recommend holding off on indoor cycling class for a few days, since the excessive friction and pressure from the bike seat and tight clothing could cause irritation,” Krant says. (That doesn’t sound good.) “Running is a tough one, too. Any lighter exercise with looser clothing is a better [option] for post-wax days,” she adds. Of course, do what feels right for you and your specific needs and goals.
9. You have a brand new tattoo. While sweat itself won’t get in the way of the healing process, you do have to be careful about making sure you don’t damage it while it’s fresh, says Krant. Plus, you don’t want to risk infection, and gyms tend to be germ central. What you can do depends on where the tattoo is and how big it is, says Krant. It’s also important to avoid friction so you don’t damage or irritate your tattoo. “I recommend low activity to prevent any accidental scratches or injuries to the newly tattooed area until it heals after 10 days or so,” suggests Krant.
10. You’ve done two days of high-intensity workouts in a row. While McCall says you can work out pretty much every day, the key is alternating the intensity of your workouts—as a rule of thumb, after one to two high-intensity days, you should mix in a low to moderate session. “Muscle tissue needs time to repair,” he explains. “High-intensity exercise places physical stress on the tissue, and too much stress with minimal repair time could lead to a long term injury,” he says. If you’re not giving your body the recovery time it needs, you could be overtraining—here are six signs to watch for.
11. You’re hungover AF. We’ve all been there. And while getting some movement increases circulation (which might make you feel better), says McCall, it’s best to keep it gentle. “Too intense could hurt the head, plus motor skills will be affected, so doing hard exercises when you’re hungover could increase the risk of injury,” he says. “A long walk or a light jog is good the day after a good night out, but not a hard indoor cycling class or a challenging WOD.”
Don’t have to tell me twice.