Pain and Exercise; The Myth of "No Pain, No Gain"

Updated: Feb 8, 2021


I'm going to cut to the chase and come right out and say it: EXERCISE IS NOT SUPPOSED TO HURT. Okay, now that I've gotten that all-caps declaration out of my system, let me explain why I am strongly against the toxic myth of "No pain, no gain," that pervades the fitness industry, and why there is a world of difference between pain and soreness.


Nobody wants to hurt, or to feel pain. Trust me, as a woman with Celiac Disease, chronic migraine, and the emergence of arthritis in areas of my body that bore the brunt of my clumsy youth, pain is something I actively try to avoid. The chronic pain I endured during my twenties before my Celiac diagnosis is actually what forged my long-term relationship with exercise: the more I moved, the less I hurt. Yes, there were days when I couldn't stand up straight due to pain (and there will be a blog in the future about exercising safely with chronic illnesses), and those were the days when I listened to my body and stayed in bed. Why? To avoid pain. But the rest of the time, I was designing my own step aerobics routines to my favorite music, rollerblading five to eight miles through beautiful Coral Gables, or going for long walks. All that activity kept the daily agony caused by an undiagnosed chronic illness at bay and allowed me to function in my day-to-day activities as a teacher and actor.


All of this is what makes me scratch my head at the prevailing notion that the quality of a workout should be measured by how much pain it causes. No! Let me say that again: NO! The quality of a workout should be measured by how much progress you make toward your goals. Exercise itself should be fun, or at least enjoyable enough to engage in regularly, or else what's the point? And for the average human being, pain really isn't fun, and the inability to move after a workout is certainly not conducive to making exercise a habit. Moreover, pain is the body's warning system that something is wrong. The human body is an incredibly complex mechanical marvel, and there are several things that happen within the body whenever it senses pain, things that you cannot consciously control. If you ignore the body's warnings, it will start to automatically engage in some crazy built-in safety protocols to protect itself, and while this whole system is intended to ensure that there is no further damage to the part of the body experiencing the pain, it can actually negatively impact the body as a whole if you continue to ignore the pain and push through.


Which brings me to the question I'm sure you're asking: but what about sore muscles after a workout? That answer is a little bit complicated. Whenever you engage in a brand new exercise, the muscles themselves have to adapt. Now, there's a very complicated scientific explanation of how the muscle fibers undergo damage and repair, and that process is what actually builds larger, stronger muscles, but I'm not going to get into the details of that right now. What you need to know is that this adaptation process occurs after exercise, while the muscle is at rest, and that the process can create what is known as Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness, or DOMS. This soreness is simply an indication that your body is undergoing the necessary muscle adaptations that will allow you to get stronger, but once again, there is a difference between soreness and pain. Soreness means that there is the sensation of mild discomfort, but it has absolutely no impact on mobility. It's your body's way of letting you know that the muscle repairs are moving along as planned, but you should focus on a different muscle group for the time being in order to achieve the maximum benefits from the exercise that caused the soreness. If you are experiencing DOMS to the degree that you can't get up and down out of a chair or lift your arms over your head, well then, congratulations, that's pain, and that's your body's way of telling you that you pushed too hard and you need to take a break or dial it back. I like to think of it as the difference between a "Caution: Wet Floor" sign and "Elevator Temporarily out of Service" sign; with soreness, you should proceed with caution, with pain, you should take a break to avoid further damage. And if you ignore the latter and push through the pain anyway, you might be looking at a serious injury, or a full construction barrier with the sign "Pardon Our Dust: Renovations in Progress."


So, what if you have a history of injury or an area of chronic pain? The truth is, you can still exercise as long as you learn how to exercise without pain. The approach to exercise will therefore be very personal and specific to the individual experiencing the pain. A person who has rheumatoid arthritis will have a very different exercise program than someone with a torn meniscus, even if both are training for the same goal, such as completing a triathlon. And if any movement pattern or exercise causes an aggravation of an existing injury or the recurrence of pain, then it should be avoided, and the causes of that pain addressed. Sometimes the root cause of the pain isn't even the area where the pain is felt. For example, I have a history of knee pain that originated from a fall down a flight of stairs when I was fifteen that resulted in injury to the patella. However, the only time I ever feel pain in that knee is when I have been lax about working my external hip rotators (or I have allowed my form to slip due to fatigue, because I'm human and it happens). So, I will then avoid any activities that cause pain in my right knee, and I target those external hip rotators until I am pain-free. Again, my goal is always the avoidance of pain, because I want to stay active as long as I possibly can.


Finally, the toxic slogan of "No pain, no gain," is enough to drive the most enthusiastic exercise participant to quit. If I know going into a workout or a class that I'm going to suffer afterward, then what's my motivation to do it? A little muscle soreness the next day is okay as long as it doesn't interrupt my daily plans, but no soreness at all is even better. I don't train to run marathons so that I can't walk for the rest of the day, I train to run marathons at a pace that will allow me to go about my usual daily activities after the 26.2 miles is behind me. And sure, we've all engaged in some form of activity in which we might have gone a little too far and we paid for it, but once again, ignoring that pain and pushing through without taking the necessary time to recover is self-defeating. Exercise to achieve progress, not to hurt, and it will be a whole lot easier to stay always in motion.


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