When you hear “pain” and “exercise” in the same sentence, you probably think one of two things: “Heck, no!” or “Bring it on!” What comes to my mind? A bodybuilder grunting while heaving plates that are way too heavy or a runner wheezing on a treadmill set way out of their comfort zone. To be quite honest, I cringe when I hear that pain is required for exercise to be effective. Why in the world would I want to inflict pain on myself, especially when I enjoy exercise? Maybe you can relate.
This is an important topic for us to tackle because there are a lot of mixed messages about what it takes to see results from exercise. What really are the facts regarding exercise intensity?
“Good” Pain versus “Bad” Pain
While some level of discomfort can indicate exercise intensity, pain doesn’t always mean gain, and here’s why. Let me start by clarifying a very important difference between “good” and “bad” exercise pain.
“Good” pain is the slight muscle soreness in areas that you targeted during your previous workout. This discomfort likely means that your body is being challenged. This is a very positive feeling because exercise shouldn’t really be comfortable if you expect results. For exercise to be impactful — that is, to create a healthier heart and improve body composition — it should be challenging.
On the other hand, “bad” pain means that you’re hurting your body instead of helping it. Examples of bad pain include a pulled muscle, achy joints or pain that increases over time. Check out The Difference Between “Good” and “Bad” Pain During Exercise to learn more. As a beginner to exercise, it may be hard to tell the difference, so go see a doctor if you regularly experience significant pain while exercising.
What It Takes to Challenge and Change the Body
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends the following quantity and quality of exercise each week:
- 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise and at least 2 days of strength training per week or
- 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic exercise and at least 2 days of strength training per week or
- An equivalent mix of moderate- and vigorous-intensity exercise and 2 days of strength training per week.
You may be sweating just looking at this list. If you run a tight schedule, you understand how hard it is to juggle time for family, chores, sleep and exercise. Rest assured. Research has found that doing three 10-minute bouts of exercise confers the same benefits as doing one 30-minute session. Be an opportunist with your time, and actively look for small bouts of free time during the day where you can sneak in exercise (e.g. walking your dog, taking a walking meeting, parking really far from the grocery store).
If you’re more time-crunched and can’t sneak in daily exercise, then the quality, or intensity, of your exercise is even more important. Make every minute that you do have to exercise count, and work to reach the moderate- to vigorous-intensity level for the minimum recommended time.
One efficient method for achieving results is through interval training, sometimes referred to as high-intensity interval training. HIIT is characterized by short bouts of vigorous-intensity movements (10 seconds to a couple of minutes) followed by a lower-intensity exercise or rest period. Research has shown that interval training may be more effective at improving cardiovascular fitness and reducing body fat than sustained exercise at a moderate intensity. Therefore, if you are short on time, a quick interval workout could be the best use of your time to really push your body and get the max benefits. Try a treadmill interval workout doing 1 minute of higher speed followed by a 30-second walk. If you are weight training, work hard during your sets, increasing your heart rate. Then, take only 30-second breaks between sets.
How to Figure Out Exercise Intensity
Because everyone is at a different fitness level, an intensity that is hard for you (think: a 5- minute mile pace) may not be for someone else. Instead, use these three simple techniques to gauge your exercise intensity. These tests apply to both cardiovascular and strength training:
1. Heart-Rate Monitoring: By monitoring your number of heartbeats per minute and keeping it within certain ranges, you can easily assess and manipulate your exercise intensity. Wearable heart-rate monitors make this process so easy. Moderate exercise intensity is achieved when your heart rate reaches 64-76% of your max heart rate and vigorous intensity is achieved at 77-95% of your max heart rate. Most wearable devices will figure out these ranges for you when you enter your gender, age, weight and height. For more on how to determine your heart-rate ranges manually, visit the CDC website.
2. Perceived Exertion: This is a test you can do on yourself based on a rating scale of your perceived exertion (aka effort). This is a subjective scale, so it takes a little practice to find your sweet spot in moderate and vigorous intensity. To do this, ask yourself how long you can continue at an intensity. At very light and light intensities, you should be able to continue the activity for a long time and have no problem breathing or talking (think: a leisurely walk). With moderate intensity, you should be able to sustain the activity for a couple of hours if needed and still be able to hold a conversation (think: a brisk walk, gardening, cycling at less than 10 mph). Vigorous activity should challenge your ability to hold a conversation and significantly increase your rate of breathing. You shouldn’t be able to sustain vigorous activity for the same amount of time as moderate intensity (think: running, hiking, swimming, high-intensity strength training). Near-maximal intensity exercise is a very short burst of exertion that usually doesn’t last more than a minute (think: sprinting, one-rep max in weightlifting).
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3. Talk Test: The simplest of tests you can use to measure intensity is to see how much you can talk while exercising. During moderate exercise, you should be able to talk but not sing. During vigorous intensity, you should only be able to speak a few phrases before pausing to take a breath.
The answer to our big question here is: No, you don’t have to experience actual pain to benefit from exercise, but you should feel challenged. While any exercise is better than no exercise, you can get so much more from a workout by challenging yourself. The key is to push yourself to exertion, but take the time to notice the signs of “bad” pain so you don’t injure yourself.