Exercise Should Not Hurt

In the last few weeks I have seen, what I fondly call the “Resolutioners” at the gym. These are new gym-goers, who push themselves to sweat on the treadmill, then the bike, then onto the elliptical machine for hours and hours. Other "Resolutioners" are lifting too heavy a weight, and jerking and gyrating their bodies all over the place. The other day I saw a young girl who looked as if she were torturing herself. I asked her what she was training for, and she told me, “Life,” then she went on to say, “No pain, no gain". I can't stand that mantra! It is simply wrong. Don’t ever let anyone tell you, “No Pain, No Gain.”

Exercise should not hurt!

At most, you may feel a little muscle soreness when you do a new workout or activity, but if you feel pain, dizziness, nausea or feel short of breath during exercise: STOP! You may be pushing yourself too hard.

Starting a fitness program may be one of the best things you can do for your physical, emotional, and social health. If you follow me on FaceBook – you’ve seen all my posts on how 'Exercise is Medicine' because it can help reduce your risk of chronic disease, improve your balance and coordination, help you lose weight, strengthen your bones, boost your self-esteem, and even help fight feelings of depression. I recently posted an amazing article that reported how people, who were diagnosed with cancer and continued to exercise, did much better than those who became sedentary after their cancer diagnosis. The benefits of exercise are limitless and you can own them regardless of age, sex, or physical ability!

So that you don’t kill yourself in the gym, I’ve gathered five great pointers here to help you build and maintain a healthy relationship with exercise because exercise should be fun, exhilarating, and enjoyable over the course of your entire life.

Pointer #1: How Much Exercise? To start, figure out how much exercise you need. To maintain health, the American College of Sports Medicine recommends 150 minutes, or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity, per week. To lose weight, the American College of Sports Medicine recommends 300 minutes, or 150 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity, per week.

This does not all have to be all at one time. I have several clients who will spread their exercise routine out over the course of the day. And if you are just starting out – you may want to just do something for 5-10 minutes – give yourself time to build endurance from week to week. Who cares if it’s only 5-10-minutes? It’s a start! Remember, the 3rd leading cause of preventable death is inactivity! So, who cares if you can only do 5-10-minutes to start - just freakin' start! Even I add miles slowly when I switch from training for a 10k to a half marathon, or from a half marathon to a full marathon. I also don’t go out too fast when adding those miles. The worst thing you can do is to get injured because you did too much, too soon, or went out too fast.

The bottom line to all these numbers is to note that exercise is any planned physical activity  - like walking, jogging, cycling, swimming, strength training, or taking an exercise class like pilates, yoga, jazzercise, etc. What exercise is not includes ‘activities for daily living’ like gardening, mowing the lawn, vacuuming, or walking up and down stairs  - even though these can be very physical. Planning your physical activity is key because it can help you reach the five basic fitness parameters: muscle strength, muscle endurance, aerobic endurance, flexibility, and balance.

Pointer #2: Rate of Perceived Effort: The Borg Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE) 'is a way of measuring your physical activity intensity level. Perceived exertion is based on how hard you feel your body is working. It’s based on the physical sensations you experience during physical activity, including increased heart rate, increased respiration or breathing rate, increased sweating, and muscle fatigue. Although this is a subjective measure, your exertion rating may provide a fairly good estimate of your actual heart rate during physical activity'.

The Borg Rate of Perceived Exertion uses a 6-to-20 scale to rate the feelings based on your perceived effort, where 6 means "no exertion at all" and 20 means "maximal exertion." Here is the Borg Scale with some examples to help you judge your rate of exertion while exercising:

During exercise, it’s always good to take a moment to appraise your personal feeling of effort and exertion. In doing this, don’t compare yourself to other people – keep your relationship with exercise personal and appraise your feeling of exertion as honestly as possible. To help you effectively and honestly use the Borg Rating Scale, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is your heart beating faster than usual, or is it racing?
  • Is your breathing deep and more rapid than usual, or uncontrolled?
  • Are you warmer than usual, slightly sweaty, or dripping with perspiration?
  • Do you feel as if you could comfortably continue exercising at the same level, or do you need to stop soon?
  • Can you carry on a conversation while performing your exercises, or are you out of breath?

Dr. Gunnar Borg, who created the scale, set it to run from 6 to 20 as a simple way to estimate heart rate, so theoretically multiplying the Borg score by 10 can give you an approximate heart rate for a particular level of activity (1). Which brings me to my third pointer on how to determine whether or not you’re overdoing it exercise-wise.

Pointer #3: Exercise Intensity Using Actual Heart Rate: Another method to determine how hard you’re pushing is to wear a heart rate monitor. A heart rate monitor will tell you what your heart rate is at any given moment and help you determine if you are working out within your “target heart rate zone”. If you know your maximum heart rate, you can ensure you are working at the appropriate intensity, or within your “target heart rate zone”.

To figure out your maximum heart rate (MHR), I suggest you use the age-based calculation designed for beginners, and amateur athletes – there’s another formula that elite athletes and trained performance-driven amateur athletes use, but that’s a topic for another post. The age-based formula is simple: Start with 220 and subtract your age. For example, a 20-year-old’s maximum heart rate would be 220 - 20 = 200.

Of course this is an estimate. For true accuracy, or for people who are over the age of 40, overweight, sedentary or have a family history of heart disease, a cardiologist or exercise physiologist can do a clinical stress testing to determine your actual MHR with a treadmill.

The MHR (roughly calculated as 220 minus your age) is the upper limit of what your cardiovascular system can handle during physical activity. You do not want to exceed your MHR. Once you know your MHR, you can determine how hard you are truly working, using percentages. For example:

  • Moderate exercise intensity: 50 to 70 percent of your maximum heart rate
  • Vigorous exercise intensity: 70 to 85 percent of your maximum heart rate

If you're not fit or you're just beginning an exercise program, aim for the lower end of your target zone (50 percent). Then, gradually build up the intensity. If you're healthy and want a vigorous intensity, opt for the higher end of the zone.

So far, you know How Much Exercise you need depending on your goal to maintain health, or lose weight; have a general sense on how to check in with yourself regarding your Rate of Perceived Effort, and even know how to Measure Exercise Intensity Using Your Actual Heart Rate. These are great, but don't forget my next pointer:

Pointer #4: Use Common Sense: That’s right – use your common sense! Working out should not hurt! If an exercise causes pain, STOP! Check your form. Form is everything. No matter what exercise you do, you should always feel it in your core. That’s right – your core. If you don’t feel it in your core, then you are likely not properly stabilizing your spine – and if that’s the case you can wind up with a low back injury. So big deal - you can only do 3 chin-ups. I’d rather do 3 chin-ups stabilizing my core, then swinging my body back and forth to do 4 more chin-ups. Think quality – not quantity! If you’re certain you’re doing the exercise correctly, but still experience pain, do a different exercise. I don’t do one-legged squats because I always feel a pulling sensation in my left knee. Instead, I’ll do goblet squats and split squats. I’m still reaping the benefits. Don’t focus on the exercises you can’t do - focus on those you can do – and do them correctly.

You also shouldn’t feel nauseous or feel like you are going to puke. If you feel nauseous, either reduce your speed or resistance until the feeling subsides. If you are in a class, just take a step back, slow down, and rejoin the group once you feel better.

Keep this simple question in your head:

Would you force a small child to continue to do this exercise,

or make them feel like this while exercising?

Which brings me to my next point: Are you eating properly?

Pointer #5: Food is Fuel: Of course, as a Registered Dietitian, I’m a big proponent of promoting healthy day-to-day eating habits, but you also need to know how to strategically plan your pre-, during-, and post-workout fuel. Eating properly throughout the day and around your exercise routine will help you reap the benefits of your exercise routine. Also note that drinking fluids such as water or a beverage with electrolytes (if you are exercising for more than 60-minutes) during exercise, as well as throughout the day is equally important.

If you’re not fueling or hydrating properly, your Rate of Perceived Exertion and your Heart Rate is going to be much higher than if you fueled your body correctly. And for most, this could mean the difference between feeling nauseous, dizzy, or suffering gastrointestinal issues - versus feeling alive and invigorated. Recovery between exercise is also important and includes properly refueling, stretching, and foam rolling. Refueling properly involves knowing when and how much carbohydrate, protein, and fat to eat directly after you exercise, as well throughout the day.

So, how you start or maintain your personal exercise program is an important decision. By carefully planning and pacing yourself, you can avoid injury, enjoy exercise, and make fitness a healthy habit that lasts a lifetime.

Exercise should be fun!

It shouldn’t hurt, be dreaded, make you feel exhausted, or make you sick to your stomach! A work out should never be used as a form of punishment because you ate too much or because you hate the way you look. It’s okay to push yourself, and challenge yourself, but you shouldn’t feel exhausted after every workout.

Exercise should make you feel good, positive, and more energized than when you began. If you believe you are doing too much, are suffering through workouts, or restricting food to reach a goal weight, then take a step back, and ask yourself that simple question stated above: Would I force a small child to continue to do this exercise, or make them feel like this? If the answer is, “No,” then maybe you need to re-evaluate your effort, and your goals.

To learn more about how to build and maintain a healthy body, increase your athletic performance, or to simply sustain a lifestyle of healthy eating, contact me at 973.852.3335

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(1) Borg Rating of Perceived Exertion Scale https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/borg-scale/

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