The Culture of Pain

Think back to the last time you woke up in pain from the previous day’s workout. Perhaps you boasted about it, just a little: “I could barely crawl out of bed this morning” or, “Ouch, my abs! It hurts to laugh!”

Why not? No pain, no gain, right? Wrong.

We’ve been trained to believe pain is good for us. There’s a widely held assumption that if you’re not in pain, you’re doing something wrong. It pops up often in even the smartest media outlets, as when The New York Times published a story headlined, “Getting Fit, Even If It Kills You.”

We’re living in a Culture of Pain. Much of the fitness world encourages this point of view, and as a result, many of us aim for pain in our workouts. The problem is, this approach to fitness is not founded in fact and it can actually hurt you. Let’s take a closer look at why.

No question, there’s a certain logic to the embrace of pain. That next-day discomfort, technically known as Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS), can be expected after an intense workout, especially when performing a new activity.  Reason: Intense exercise causes minor trauma to your muscle tissue, and that breakdown of the muscle causes it to come back bigger and stronger. This breakdown/recovery process is what leads to stronger, denser muscle fibers.  So a little DOMS can in fact be a good sign.

But the effect can vary dramatically from one individual to another. Some experience it after every workout; others never feel it. It’s an unreliable indicator of workout effectiveness, and not a necessary component of getting fit.

Today’s fitness landscape strongly suggests otherwise, blurring the line between a healthy dedication to fitness and the obsessive pursuit of pain for its own sake. After all, it takes commitment and sacrifice to keep the body in shape. “Feeling” the workout, sometimes for days on end, suggests we’re making progress and helps us stay on track. If it looks hardcore and it hurts, then we must be accomplishing something.

This sense of validation and self-confirmation fuels the Culture of Pain. It’s twisted, but it endures primarily due to a lack of knowledge. Exercise physiology is a complex subject that few us are required to take in school. So we rely on the expertise of fit friends and the signals we pick up from the media. Exhibit A is the growing popularity of the CrossFit Games, where men and women with physiques of Greek gods compete in grueling physical challenges for the title of “Fittest on Earth.” It’s easy to assume that this is the right way to work out for everyone, and maybe the only way to get results.

TV shows like “the Biggest Loser” – where incredibly overweight people workout to the brink of collapse while being screamed at by celebrity trainers – offer  unrealistic images of what constitutes effective exercise, and how quickly it should produce results. As the controversy over the most recent winner’s extreme weight loss suggests, these practices can border on the dangerous.

Which brings me to the final piece of the Culture of Pain. Modern-day society is all about instant gratification.  People don’t want to look better in a year, they want to look better in a month. But the fact is, real fitness is never rushed. The key to a good workout program is that you be able to do it consistently over time. Going too hard or too fast can lead to injuries, over-training and burnout, and derail your best fitness intentions. Collapsing in a puddle on the floor after bootcamp class isn’t as fun after a few weeks, so you walk away.

In short, while pain is often an unavoidable side effect of training, it should never be the goal.

The fitness world is a complicated and confusing place. To break free of the Culture of Pain won’t be easy. As a start, we should shift the focus of exercise away from the “experience” and towards the results. While losing weight and getting stronger are desired objectives, there’s a healthier way to think about your goals. Fitness should make your life more balanced and well-rounded, not less. Rather than limping around and nursing injuries, you should feel better both physically and mentally. The truly fit person brings new energy and a more positive attitude to everything they do. In the end, the point isn’t what happens inside the gym, it’s how fitness transforms the rest of your life.

If we could all begin the journey with this simple mindset, we might build a smarter, more sustainable consensus about what really works in fitness, and what doesn’t. It’s time to put the Culture of Pain out of its misery.

Michael Wood, CSCS
Chief Fitness Officer, Koko FitClub


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About Michael Wood, Chief Fitness Officer
Michael Wood, CSCS, is Chief Fitness Officer at Koko FitClub, driving the development of integrated strength and cardio training and nutrition programs for Koko members nationwide. A nationally acclaimed fitness expert, Michael has conducted research as a Senior Exercise Physiologist at the Nutrition, Exercise Physiology and Sarcopenia Laboratory at the Research Center on Aging at Tufts University, and has lectured at Boston University and the University of Connecticut. He has been named Boston Magazine’s “Best of Boston” Personal Trainer, and made the Men’s Journal “Dream Team” list of the nine best trainers in the U.S. Michael and his family live in North Attleboro, MA.

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