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Exercise and pain. Necessary or avoidable?

Exercise and pain. Necessary or avoidable?

The French have a saying: ‘il faut souffrir pour etre belle’ which means that ‘it is necessary to suffer to be beautiful’. Given that many of us equate beauty with a fit and well-exercised body, is this still true?

Pain is something that we all fear, but it is a very important part of human survival. In rare cases, children can be born without the ability to feel pain. This sounds idyllic but it is in fact very damaging, because pain is our warning system to stop us damaging ourselves. These children have to be closely supervised as they are very exposed to the hazards of everyday life without the reflexes that guard us from heat and injury. Even in adulthood, we rely on pain messages to tell us when we are in danger or pushing ourselves too much. In short, pain keeps us safe.

Everyone who exercises knows that despite the warning of pain, there has to be some discomfort if we are to become fitter. Sitting on the sofa doesn’t hurt at the time (although stiff and weak muscles will cause big problems later), but exercise involves effort and that means some uncomfortable sensations. The question is, how much discomfort is reasonable?

Back at the beginning of the ‘exercise to music’ craze in the 1980s, Jane Fonda’s famous mantra was ‘feel the burn’. Getting fit was definitely a case of ‘no pain, no gain’ and the feeling was that the more something hurt, the more good it was doing to you. Everyone was encouraged to push themselves to the absolute maximum with a combination of peer pressure and abuse.

Part of the reason for this is the phenomenon known as the ‘exercise high’. This is the rush of chemicals called endorphins which are produced during heavy exercise, and give feelings of exhilaration and even euphoria. Endorphins are also a natural painkiller, so suffering muscles go un-noticed. By the next day the effects have worn off and the overworked muscles will make their presence felt with soreness and stiffness.

The cause of that morning-after feeling is the damage done as we work our muscles. Tiny rips and tears in the muscle fibres are the way that muscles grow stronger, but there is some aching involved which is the signal from the body that it should be a little while before the next strenuous workout. A small amount of stiffness is reasonable, and is best dealt with by a gentle walk and an end of day hot bath. However if your efforts have left you feeling that you can’t move, this is your body saying that it can’t progress as quickly as you want and that your workout regime needs to be more progressive.

With the eighties ‘no pain, no gain’ attitudes replaced with the more relaxed approach of the 21st century, fitness is dissociating itself from too much suffering. As fitness science has progressed, workouts have become a little less brutal and less frightening. While military-style boot camps and tough circuits are still available for those that want them, leisure centres and gyms are concentrating on being accessible to all. Instructors now use gentle encouragement to persuade people to make progress, knowing that exercise must be fun and rewarding if it is to continue.

When it comes to exercise, there has to be what could be called a managed level of suffering. To get fitter, we need to work – it is as simple as that. Pushing our bodies to be fitter and stronger means that we need to make some effort, and that effort can sometimes translate to us as pain. The important thing is to know the difference between the pain of effort and the pain of injury.

Minor discomfort is part of exercise, but there are some pains that should not be ignored. These include:

  • Chest pain – any feeling of tightness or pain in the chest during exercise is a signal to stop. If the pain does not abate quickly, it can be a medical emergency. Even if the pain does ease, it is still important to see a doctor. It may only be a strained muscle or even stomach-ache – but it may be a symptom of a cardiac problem. Chest pain should never be ignored.
  • Knee pain – this vulnerable joint needs to be supported by a strong set of muscles if it is to work correctly.
  • Shin pain – the notorious ‘shin splints’ or pain in the lower leg are due to stress on the muscles tissue around the tibia bone in the lower leg.  This is caused by too much running and even by jogging on the spot, which is why this movement is now used with caution. It is important to do something about shin pain, as if ignored it can lead to small bone fractures and much bigger problems.

So while exercise should be effort, it should not be agony. Don’t hesitate to seek help if any of the above sound familiar.