Want to get those abs or a perky bum? Well, you will have to spend hours playing in the gym.
Or so, we’ve been told for decades.
The motivational adage “no pain, no gain” echoed the mindset of bodybuilders in spit-and-sawdust gyms over the years, when it was believed that the only way to change your body was to hit a wall of pain.
But over the years this myth has been dispelled, says Dr Darren Player, lecturer in bioengineering of skeletal muscles at University College London.
According to experts, it turns out that people can still walk at the end of a workout while they are making progress.
But how much pain do we actually need to endure in order to see results?
Here, MailOnline breaks down the science behind “no pain, no gain” and explains how taking it easy can still get you results.
In order to improve your strength or your ability to run farther or faster, you need to push yourself more than before, which can make you feel uncomfortable. But that pain doesn’t have to be unbearable, according to personal trainers and scientists
Some kind of pain is inevitable
Unfortunately, it is true that you will need to experience some type of pain to see any improvement.
To get stronger or run more, you have to push yourself more than before – either by lifting stronger weights or cramming another 5K – which will likely feel uncomfortable.
This is because most improvements in athletic performance are due to increased muscle strength.
When doing a hard workout, the used muscles suffer small tears, which the body then repairs and adapts to handle the activity better the next time around.
There is also a physiological factor to saying “no pain, no gain”. In order for many of us to feel like we’ve gotten the most out of a gym session, we want to feel our sore muscles
This process, known medically as hypertrophy, increases muscle size and causes some pain.
“We need to work the muscles hard enough to get that tear and regrowth,” said Matt Roberts, a personal trainer who has worked with Naomi Campbell, Mel C, and Adele. It is the tearing and growth that has a certain degree of discomfort.
‘You have to introduce this new stimulus,’ said Dr Blair.
If someone who has done nothing at all—except to sit and stand from a chair—does something a little more, they will see some improvement.
“It could mean that, in this scenario, they are actually in some pain.”
You can take it easy
To get fit, you don’t necessarily need to push yourself until you can breathe or walk hard.
Instead, taking small steps that require less effort can also work, experts say.
Dr Blair said: ‘For most people it’s simple, if you do more today than you did yesterday, or the previous session, it’s really enough.
“You don’t have to push yourself to the point where you can’t walk.”
Alternatively, a long walk or bike ride that increases your heart rate for a longer time — but at a lower pace — can give you results and improve fitness, while being less strenuous.
If you simply want to enjoy running, swimming, or cycling at a steady pace to stay healthy, you can avoid the pain part altogether. But if your goal is to have the endurance to run an ultra-marathon, you’re going to need to go through a certain level of pain.
This approach falls into the category of cardio, Roberts said, as it works a muscle group over a longer period, and is “much more pain-free.”
He added that this is in contrast to cardio — performing an exercise close to maximum capacity for a shorter time — which involves pushing to a “higher level.”
Doing brisk walking, which causes heavier breathing compared to resting, is the “minimum requirement” for getting fit.
He said: There is no need for pain or gain. There is still gain, but no pain.
This depends on your goal
In the end, the amount of effort and pain you need to endure depends on your goal.
Those seeking to complete long-distance runs will need to take some pain to boost their muscle and cardiovascular capacity.
But those who simply want to enjoy running, swimming, or cycling at a steady pace to stay healthy can avoid pain altogether, according to Roberts.
“If your goal is to run a marathon,” he said, “there is pain. If you just want to be able to run just for fun and to stay healthy and fit, it won’t be much of a pain.
To maintain your overall health, personal trainer Matt Roberts simply suggests taking it easy with endurance work and says that doing a brisk walk past ‘is really the minimum requirement’.
If your goal is muscle mass and growth, then pain is definitely in order.
“But if your goal is to still look somewhat athletic and stay strong, there’s discomfort rather than pain.”
For example, those with more ambitious goals for building muscle mass need to push themselves “to the point of failure” — when they can’t complete an exercise for longer or with a higher load — according to Dr. Player.
You may actually enjoy it
The motivational saying “No pain, no gain” means that getting fit is only associated with unpleasant sensations.
But, during exercise, our bodies create a chemical that may actually make us feel pleasure in pain–endorphins.
Two parts of the brain—the hypothalamus and pituitary gland—produce “feel-good” hormones in response to pain or stress. Endorphins act as a natural pain reliever and create a sense of general well-being.
Exercise also triggers the release of dopamine and serotonin, which are neurotransmitters produced by the brain that are also released during exercise and improve mood.
Roberts said that these mechanisms mean that people enjoy being tested and motivated by exercise.
“When you leave the gym or go for a run, people walk away feeling better,” he added.
How to maintain your health through exercise
Adults are encouraged to do some type of physical activity every day. Exercising once or twice a week can reduce your risk of heart disease or stroke.
People over the age of 18 should aim to:
- Do strengthening activities that work all major muscle groups (legs, hips, back, abs, chest, shoulders and arms) at least 2 days a week. This includes carrying heavy shopping bags, yoga, pilates, and weightlifting.
- Do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity per week or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity per week. Moderate activity includes brisk walking, bike riding, dancing, and double tennis. Active activity includes running, swimming, and riding a bike fast or on hills.
- Spread your exercise evenly over four to five days a week, or every other day
- Limit the time you spend sitting or lying down and break long periods of inactivity with some activity
Adults can also meet the weekly activity goal by:
- Several short sessions of high-intensity activity. This includes heavy weight lifting, track training, and hill running.
- A mixture of moderate, vigorous, and vigorous activities