Exercise and Pain vs. Burn Will it ever stop hurting?

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This article was written, edited and/or updated on December 12, 2021.

The Goals of Fitness

There are five basic goals of fitness, particularly for the older adult:

Cardiovascular exercise is accomplished during any of a number of activities from sports to running to fitness class movements.

For increasing muscle endurance or strength:

A higher number of repetitions using a relatively low amount of weight is conducive to building muscular endurance.

Fewer repetitions with a relatively high weight will build muscular strength.

Begin with a very light weight that you know you can lift. Increase the weight gradually until you find a weight that makes you fatigued after ten repetitions of the exercise.

So these are very simply stated goals, and when we first begin exercising we expect all to go well, but what happens when it begins to hurt?

What is "the burn"?

When you exercise and isolate a muscle group, lactic acid, which is produced naturally by your body, begins to build around that muscle. As this happens, a person will feel a burning sensation.

After a certain number of repetitions, the lactic acid causes muscle fatigue. When this happens, you will feel as though you are unable to complete any more repetitions.

The presence of the lactic acid is sometimes referred to as an 'oxygen debt'. This is because large amounts of lactic acid can only be removed by combining it with oxygen. Muscles may cease working until the oxygen supply that it needs has been replenished.

To replace the lactic acid with oxygen, the body will do the following:

The burn is considered to be a good thing — it means that your muscles are working to their capacity.

Everyone will feel "the burn" differently — at different levels of intensity, with different muscles, and with different equipment.

How do I know if it's pain or "the burn"?

Here is an excellent description of the two types of pain from Paul Ingraham's article, "The Basic Types of Pain": 2

"There are two well-recognized broad categories of pain: the common sensical sort (the pain of damage), and the somewhat more exotic kind that comes from damage to the system that reports and interprets damage, the nervous system. It’s the difference between engine trouble and trouble with that light on your dashboard that says there’s engine trouble. More specifically:

"Nociceptive pain arises from various kinds of trouble in tissues, reported to the brain by the nervous system. This is the type of pain everyone is most familiar with, everything from bee stings and burns and toe stubs to repetitive strain injury, nausea, tumours, and inflammatory arthritis. Nociceptive pain typically changes with movement, position, and load.

"Neuropathic pain arises from damage to the nervous system itself, central or peripheral, either from disease, injury, or pinching. The simplest neuropathies are mechanical insults, like hitting your funny bone or sciatica, but this is a big category: anything that damages neurons, from multiple sclerosis to chemotherapy to alcoholism to phantom limb pain. It’s often stabbing, electrical, or burning, but nearly any quality of pain is possible. Unfortunately, it’s also more likely to lead to chronic pain: nerves don’t heal well."

You do not want to have pain while you're exercising, but you do want to feel the burn.

Will my body run like a well-maintained engine?

A finely tuned engine will run smoothly and with few glitches. But it does have to be maintained, fine-tuned, given oil and gas, and treated kindly.

Your body is like that finely-tuned engine; it requires maintenance. And, just like that finely-tuned engine, you will get older!

There are many reasons why we may not be able to completely heal damaged or aging muscle fibre, nor keep up with the slow aging process. Some of them are:

Entrophy is defined as "lack of order or preditability; a gradual decline into disorder." To a small extent, this is what happens to our bodies and we cannot completely overcome it.

Personal Goals

Keep your personal goals small — perhaps you just want to maintain what you have. That's a good goal and usually attainable.

As your body gets used to exercise you can increase your activities and adjust time, weights, and expectations.

This article is part of a series about exercise and various health conditions. The other articles are:

You may also like to read:

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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  2. From the article :The Basic Types of Pain ↩︎