Pain During and After Exercise Should it hurt when I exercise? What if I hurt after exercise?

Editor's Note: When you see these three dots surrounded by a gray rectangle — 1 — you can click on it to get further information about the topic. Click a second time, and the message goes away.

This article was edited and updated on May 10, 2017.

They used to say "No Pain, No Gain," but not any more!

We’ve heard it many times: No pain, no gain. But if you ignore a sharp pain while exercising, you could be setting yourself up for serious injuries. You are also more likely to hamper your ability to perform exercises correctly which can lead to further injury. Just remember this: Pain may mean injury. Your body is telling you something. You just have to figure out what it is telling you!

What matters is how intense the pain is. There is a difference between a “sore muscle” 2 and ongoing, sharp pain. You do not want to experience the latter while exercising.

What to do if you have pain

If the pain is sharp and continuous, stop exercising!

If you experience a sharp continuous pain while exercising, you should stop immediately.

The same is true if it feels like your heart is working overtime.

If the pain persists, you should go to the Emergency Room of the nearest hospital as soon as possible.

Even if the pain goes away quickly, you should still make an appointment to see your doctor.

Remember, too, that injuries can occur at any time during a fitness class even when you’re stretching. During a stretch, you should feel only mild tension and perhaps a small degree of discomfort, but never pain. Stretches should be held only to the point of mild discomfort for 20-30 seconds.

New Motto: Exercise Smart

If you are from the “no pain, no gain” era (and many of us are), it is time to think again. Exercise smart. That should be your motto.

Older Adults face some Greater Challenges when Exercising

Research continues to show many significant benefits to exercise, and seniors now want those those benefits.

However, they face some unique challenges.

What are they?

Recurring pain: it’s definitely a problem for some older adults. There may be a pre-existing painful condition — arthritis or osteoporosis, for example. Or there may be pain only affecting one joint — such as a frozen shoulder — which will limit joint mobility and range of motion.

People who suffer all-over body pain are understandably wary of exercise. Here are some ways to confront pain while exercising:

Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS)

This phenomenon does exist, especially if you have not exercised for a long time, or if you exercise more than usual. Muscles may remain sore for up to five days after exercise; however, that does not mean you must stay away from exercise until the soreness goes away. 4

Be aware that there is difference between DOMS and an injury. An injury will last longer, probably hurt more, and possibly require medical treatment or long-term physiotherapy. After-exercise discomfort is milder and will go away. Seek medical advice if your pain is intense.

This is from an article in The Guardian titled Should I exercise if my muscles are sore?

"Muscle soreness can be caused by small micro-tears in the muscles, and/or the build-up of byproducts of intense activity such as lactic acid and calcium, which can be reduced with a proper cool-down period. These tiny tears to the muscle cells are nothing to be worried about; they are what cause your muscles to grow and repair (in combination with good nutrition and sufficient rest), making the muscles stronger and bigger over time. In the majority of cases, muscle soreness should not be a cause for concern and shouldn’t stop you [from] training, rather it simply serves as a reminder that you need to:

• cool down and stretch after intense periods of cardiovascular activity;

• ensure your nutrition (including hydration) is up to scratch;

• increase your fitness, which is likely to improve as the season or regime you’ve started progresses;

• consider training more muscle groups per session, and multiple times per week, rather than a one-muscle group such as a biceps or a chest day – where too much volume is used, resulting in debilitating muscle soreness, and no extra progress for the pain."

Other Issues — especially for Older Adults

Some may feel they have two left feet.

Some of the other issues which may arise for older adults in a group fitness class:

Usually the Benefits outweigh the Concerns

An older adult who chooses to stay home for any one of these reasons is missing out on one of the key benefits of group exercise: by being with others, many are motivated to continue. The benefits of a class setting far outweigh the concerns that most people have about attending, but getting an older adult through the door of the fitness class is sometimes the greatest challenge.

See also:

I am a BCRPA-certified fitness instructor in Vancouver, BC. I teach four classes at the West End Community Centre in Vancouver, BC, mostly designed for the older adult. The Inevitable Disclaimer: Everything published here expresses only my opinion, based on my training and research. What you do with the information is entirely your own responsibility. I am not liable for any injury you suffer that seems to be related to anything you read here. Always consult your doctor before beginning an exercise program. For other articles, return to the table of contents.

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  1. These three dots behave exactly like a footnote. Click on them and you will get more information about the topic. 

  2. See discussion about Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) later in this article. 

  3. Usually patients need to wait three months before returning to a fitness class after a hip or knee replacement. However, I have worked with several participants who have successfully returned to fitness after surgery. 

  4. Here's a great article about DOMS: Should I exercise if my muscles are sore?

  5. Research has shown this to be true — an actual phenomenon.