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How's that New Year resolution of No Pain No Gain shaping up?
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How's that New Year resolution of No Pain No Gain shaping up?

All that hard slog in the gym might seem a good idea, but in reality, it doesn't work

Solange Vázquez

Friday, 26 January 2024, 18:15

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With the excesses of Christmas a distant memory, for many January is the month for new resolutions, including that of getting fitter and healthier. The popular motto of 'no pain, no gain' is recited like a mantra by those who want to improve their bodies through exercise. A more traditional, much less dramatic version would be 'if you want something, it'll cost you'.

After all that festive indulgence, some 'sinners' look to punish themselves at the gym. Alternatively they turn to training apps, the more hardcore the better. Let's just think this through... Is all that pain really necessary or even appropriate?

Marcos Vázquez, the famous fitness blogger, who incidentally is not known for being a softie, puts it bluntly: "That saying of 'to make any progress, you have to suffer for it' is not true. Plenty of people believe that muscle soreness is an indicator that they have trained hard... well, it isn't. The only thing it shows is that your muscles were not up to the chosen exercise".

Herein lies the caveat - this does not mean that getting in shape will not require "some effort". In fact, Vázquez suggests that, if we are training "and not a drop of sweat has fallen nor have we noticed any muscle burn," then it is likely that we are doing something wrong.

"But effort is different from suffering!" he says. This fitness expert believes that, when it comes to improving our physical abilities (building strength, muscle, resistance), "the most important thing is to make steady progress".

Push too hard and give up

"It is the only way to obtain good results, because you give the body time to adapt. But not everyone sees it that way: it is very common around this time of year for people to be pumped up about starting to exercise, they flog themselves to death over three days and then give up".

This is what is called 'starting out like a racehorse and hitting the brakes like a donkey'. It can happen to us when we ignore all the red flags that our bodies send us, telling us that we are overdoing it.

One of the tools we can use to understand our bodies better is to use the perceived exertion limit to measure the intensity of a workout. It works like this: for each physical activity we undertake, we assign it a rating from 1 (minimum effort) to 10 (the point at which we should stop, that being just before we can take no more).

According to Vázquez, we should stay around the 8 marker, and creating this scale helps us establish where that 8 is. In strength exercises where we undergo repetitions, then even just seven or eight reps "are already a good tally". However, if we are not keen on the numbers game, we could just wait for the muscles to "start to burn a little.... That is a good moment to stop as it's good to feel some discomfort but don't carry on".

So, what about aerobic exercise like running? The ideal moment to stop is when it becomes difficult to speak.

Still, why not at least try to get closer to that level 10 of perceived effort? After all, doing sports is all about improvement, right?

"No, you should always leave a safety margin," recommends Vázquez. Some people keep going until they are dizzy, nauseous, gasping for breath, with muscles turned to jelly or in pain... That is just wrong! These are all indicators that we have overdone it and sometimes it is difficult to recover from this, or we might even cause ourselves some harm.

Another sign to look out for is what happens after your training session: "Exercising should give you more energy the next day. If on a rest day you feel really tired, you have almost certainly overdone it and that is always counterproductive," says Vázquez. For good results he recommends the following: "Train four days a week without killing it, but put in some effort, then keep up that practice to develop well".

The body can rebel

Guillermo Lanzas, a doctor specialising in rehab and board member of the Spanish Society of Rehabilitation and Physical Medicine (SERMEF), agrees with Vázquez that "after a long break from physical activity, we must return to exercise gradually so that the body does not resist".

According to Dr Lanzas, the most common injuries caused by pushing the body too far are muscle seizures or torn muscles, mild tendonitis and even some joint sprains. So, as per the advice, flogging yourself at the gym every week is not only useless, but counterproductive.

Thus these experts believe that it is more effective to avoid a sedentary lifestyle by following the standard WHO (World Health Organization) recommendations: "Aerobic exercise five days a week, 30 to 60 minutes per day, moderate intensity, along with some moderate strength exercise two or three days a week".

It may seem an inconsequential shift in attitudes but, if it's positive results that we're after, this is the way forward and the 'all or nothing' attitude should be dropped.

This is more akin to the core notion of Kaizen, a Japanese philosophy that is the antithesis of the 'no pain, no gain' movement. Kaizen states that, to move forward in the true spirit of self-improvement, we must take small, steady but firm steps without drowning in the excessive demands we put upon ourselves.

Maybe we should give this a try?

If it costs more, it must be doing us more good, right?

We often regard an expensive face cream as being better than the cheap one, even when the ingredients are no different. The same goes for a radical weight loss programme that only seems more effective than a gradual weight loss one yielding similar results. Apparently, sacrifice is in our DNA. The neuropsychologist Sergio Lotauro carried out an experiment years ago to this effect: he set out two identical toys for babies, placing them at some distance from the subjects. To reach one toy there were no obstacles in the way, but to reach the other there was a see-through screen. Which toy did the youngsters head for? They went for the one that forced them to climb, to make an effort. The explanation seems to be that we seek that feeling of control that comes from knowing we can do a complex task.

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