No Pain No Gain: The Truth About Exercise and Pain

Posted underMSK Pain

Is the popular saying “no pain, no gain” really true? Many wonder if experiencing pain during exercise is necessary to reap its benefits. This may include chronic pain, lumbar pain or musculoskeletal pain to name a few. The truth is, the level of discomfort during exercise varies depending on several factors.

Exercise often involves pushing your body beyond its comfort zone, leading to sensations of discomfort. This discomfort, referred to as muscle soreness or fatigue, is a natural response to physical exertion. It usually occurs during or after exercise and subsides within a few hours or days.

Understanding Discomfort During Exercise

Discomfort during exercise can stem from various factors like muscle fatigue, lactic acid build-up, and increased heart rate. These sensations are considered normal and even essential for progress in fitness endeavours. When you challenge your body’s limits, it adapts by becoming stronger, more flexible, and efficient.

Discomfort might manifest as burning sensations in muscles, shortness of breath, increased heart rate, or mental fatigue. However, it’s crucial to distinguish discomfort from pain. While some discomfort is expected during challenging workouts, it shouldn’t be debilitating or hinder your ability to perform exercises correctly.

Differentiating Discomfort from Pain

Pain during exercise should never be ignored or brushed off as a natural consequence of physical activity. It could be a sign of an underlying injury, improper form, or overexertion.

Managing Chronic Pain and Exercising

The Impact of Chronic Pain on Exercise

If you experience chronic pain, you’re not alone. Many individuals live with chronic pain and may fear that engaging in exercise will worsen their pain conditions. Finding a form of exercise that is entirely pain-free may not always be realistic. 

In fact, avoiding physical activity due to fear of increased pain can lead to a vicious cycle where muscles weaken, joints stiffen, and overall fitness decreases. Over time, this physical deconditioning can result in more pain.

Adopting a Systematic Approach

Approaching exercise in a systematic way, starting with low loads, durations, and repetitions, can help manage chronic pain during physical activity. It’s important to understand that chronic pain persists beyond the usual time of tissue healing, making it an unreliable indicator of the body’s condition. Factors like stress, past experiences, poor sleep, social losses, and mood can contribute to the perception of pain, going beyond tissue damage.

Even in cases of underlying structural, mechanical, or inflammatory problems, exercise can be beneficial when carefully progressed and started at low levels. Mild to moderate pain can often be accepted, as long as it settles within a reasonable time frame.

A Good Saying to Remember: “Hurt Doesn’t Equal Harm”

While you might not be causing actual damage, it’s essential to minimise pain flare-ups. Exercising parts of your body not affected by pain and pacing your exercise regimen carefully can help. Seeking advice from an exercise expert, such as a physiotherapist or exercise physiologist with pain management training, can guide you on your exercise journey.

Knowing When to Listen to Your Body

While moderate pain during exercise may be acceptable, pushing too hard and aggravating the pain is not advisable. Swelling, heat, and redness accompanying pain could indicate excessive exercise intensity. Pain can serve as a warning to avoid injury. Like how we instinctively withdraw our hand from a flame, exercise-induced pain can help us prevent muscle tears and disc bulges.

If discomfort during exercise intensifies, don’t ignore it. Stop and switch to a different activity. In group exercise classes, don’t feel pressured to do what everyone else is doing. Listen to your body and choose what’s right for you.

Safest Forms of Exercise

The Importance of Enjoyable Exercise

The safest exercise forms are the ones you enjoy and want to continue. If someone hates swimming, telling them it’s the best exercise won’t motivate them. Finding enjoyable ways to exercise, such as with a friend, listening to an audiobook while walking, or committing to set class times, can boost motivation.

Considerations for High-Impact Activities

Certain exercises may be harder on the body than others, but they can also bring benefits. Studies show that running doesn’t cause osteoarthritis in the lower limb joints as once believed; instead, it can improve bone density and joint health.

High-impact activities should be approached with caution. Prepare with strengthening and lower-impact exercises before progressing. Use proper technique, equipment, and build up gradually while considering existing joint or muscle issues.

Low-Impact Exercises for Chronic Pain

For those with chronic pain, consult a healthcare professional or physiotherapist for tailored exercise recommendations. Some low-impact exercises that may help include walking, swimming, yoga, strength training, pilates, cycling, and tai chi.

  1. Walking: A gentle cardiovascular exercise that can be easily adjusted to your comfort level.
  2. Swimming, hydrotherapy or water aerobics: The buoyancy of water reduces stress on your joints while providing resistance for muscle strengthening.
  3. Yoga: Certain yoga poses and stretches can help improve flexibility, strengthen muscles, and promote relaxation.
  4. Strength training: Strengthening exercises, such as light weightlifting or using resistance bands can build muscle strength and control and help support joints.
  5. Pilates: Using specialised equipment or not, the focus is on core control, postural alignment and breath control to enhance strength, flexibility and overall body awareness.
  6. Cycling: Whether indoors on a stationary bike or outdoors, cycling can be a low-impact exercise that is gentle on the joints.
  7. Tai Chi: This mind-body practice combines gentle flowing movements, deep breathing, and meditation, which may help improve balance, flexibility, and reduce pain.

Embracing an Active Lifestyle

Start Small, Progress Gradually

Low-intensity exercise is an excellent starting point and may remain the best option for some. Others may progress to more intensive exercises. Regardless of the exercise chosen, even a 5-minute walk is a great start. Embrace an active lifestyle and discover its benefits.

Seeking Support for Chronic Pain

If chronic pain hinders your efforts, reach out for advice, support, and minimally invasive techniques. Our team will work with you to get you moving again.

Conclusion: Exercising Wisely for a Healthier You
In conclusion, “no pain no gain” isn’t always the right approach to exercise. Discomfort is normal, but debilitating pain should be addressed. As pain specialists in Melbourne, we recommend  a tailored and systematic approach to exercise which can help individuals with chronic pain engage in physical activity safely and reap the many benefits of an active lifestyle.

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