No pain, no gain is an accepted philosophy – so, how painful should your workout be?
Every strenuous exercise involves some mixture of suffering and pleasure. The key to sticking with it is getting the balance right.
Katy Kennedy’s first attempt to develop a running habit was a flop. She signed up for a half-marathon, punished herself up and down the hills in her neighbourhood to prepare, then struggled through the race.
“I walked the last mile, and someone shouted ‘Run!’ at me, and I was like, ‘I can’t,’” recalled Dr Kennedy, now a lecturer at the University of Chichester in Britain. “It was horrific, actually. I thought I might die. Then I gave up running for 10 years.”
The next time around she decided to do things differently. “I wanted to have a more pleasant experience,” she said. “And I thought, how can I learn to like running?”
That question eventually drove her doctoral research on the experiences of beginner runners – how they feel and how that affects their ability to stick with their new habit. And according to her peers in the emerging field of exercise psychology, the answers are far more important to your long-term physical and mental health than the humdrum details of how long, how hard or how often you exercise. After all, no exercise regimen is effective if you don’t stick with it.
But the connection between how a workout routine makes you feel and whether you’re still doing it in six months isn’t as straightforward as it may seem. If it makes you miserable, like Dr Kennedy’s first experience with running, you’ll likely quit. If it’s too easy, on the other hand, you may find it boring – or, perhaps worse, pointless. The most committed exercisers often crave a certain amount of discomfort.
So if you’re trying to form an exercise habit, how do you figure when to avoid suffering and when to embrace it?
WHY PLEASURE IS USEFUL
By one estimate, 97 per cent of us agree that physical activity is important for health. And yet a study of 3,500 American adults who used wearable devices to track exercise habits found that only 3.2 per cent of them actually hit the recommended threshold of 150 minutes of moderate activity per week.
One theory for this gap between intentions and actions is that we’re too busy to exercise, which has fuelled the rise of ultrashort, high-intensity interval workouts over the past decade. But Panteleimon Ekkekakis, an exercise psychologist and the chair of Michigan State University’s kinesiology department, believes the explanation is more visceral: For many people, exercise feels really unpleasant.
Of course, in the middle of a gruelling workout, even gym lovers often rate their experience as unpleasant, and new exercisers generally hate it. But afterward, according to Dr Ekkekakis, pretty much everyone feels great.
Like the old joke about banging your head against a wall, this elation could happen simply because it feels so good to stop. Or it could be because your body produces its own version of opioid painkillers – or endorphins – during hard exercise, which leave you with a lingering positive feeling and a desire to return to the gym.
The research, however, suggests that a post-workout high doesn’t correlate with sticking to an exercise routine long term. Instead, how you feel during the workout is a stronger predictor. If the first few workouts in the pool or gym are miserable, you might assume that misery is unavoidable.
Dr Kennedy often sees this among beginner runners: “They’d say, ‘Well, I’m feeling bad, but running is supposed to make you feel bad. So therefore I’ll keep going at this pace rather than just slowing down or walking.’”
This is the wrong attitude, Dr Kennedy said; if you’re having a miserable time, ease up a little. And consider what else might make your experience more enjoyable. In her own return to running, for example, she emphasised doing it with others, giving herself permission to walk up hills and buying comfortable shoes and a supportive bra.
Distracting yourself with music, video, or even virtual reality can also lessen discomfort. And subtle tweaks to your environment, like removing mirrors and avoiding critical observers, can make the workout experience more pleasant, Dr Ekkekakis said.
Finally, how you think about your workout makes a difference. For example, a 2018 study from researchers at Tufts University and the US Army’s Cognitive Science Team found that running felt easier when subjects thought about it in a dispassionate, less negative way, like imagining they were scientists or journalists examining running objectively in the moment.
WHY PAIN IS USEFUL
The underlying assumption is that humans are wired to pursue pleasure and avoid suffering. Yet that’s routinely contradicted by our behaviours: Eating hot chili peppers, climbing icy mountains, sweating it out in superheated saunas.
Paul Bloom, a psychologist at the University of Toronto whose 2021 book The Sweet Spot explored this paradox, suggested that an unpleasantly intense workout might serve several overlapping purposes. Not only does it feel good to stop, but pushing hard is a temporary escape from distractions and worries.
Dr Bloom also argued that humans are not pure hedonists – we also seek meaning. And meaning, he said, is often closely linked with suffering.
Meaningful life events, such as having children, or occupations, like being a teacher or serving in the military, often involve considerable sacrifice and struggle. Similarly, researchers have found people value IKEA furniture they’ve assembled themselves 63 per cent more highly than the same furniture pre-assembled.
“People avoid effort, but it’s also something that we can learn to like,” said Michael Inzlicht, a colleague of Dr Bloom’s at the University of Toronto. In addition to pleasure, humans seek out things like competence, mastery and self-understanding. “You can’t get those without pushing yourself,” he said.
The tens of thousands of people who’ve signed up for this fall’s New York City Marathon may nod their heads in agreement, but newer exercisers are often less willing to seek discomfort. To what extent can an appetite for pain be cultivated?
Dr Inzlicht and his colleagues have devised a Meaningfulness of Effort scale to measure how much people derive purpose from doing hard things. Some people undertake difficult tasks grudgingly, dragging themselves to the gym only because they know it’s good for them. “But other people, maybe you can call them joyful workers, this is what they live for,” he said. “This is what helps them make the world make sense.”
The argument for suffering during your workout, then, is that acquiring a taste for it offers a more lasting incentive to stick with your routine.
Unpublished new work from Dr Inzlicht’s lab suggests that with the right encouragement, people can incrementally adopt the perspective of the joyful worker. To start, Dr Inzlicht suggested taking “baby steps of effort”: Include a couple 30-second surges, for example. Then take a cue from video-game designers, he said, and keep raising the difficulty of future workouts just enough to keep yourself interested without getting discouraged.
FINDING A MIDDLE WAY
Even the most elite athletes don’t seek suffering every time they step out the door. In fact, they rarely do.
In the early 2000s, Stephen Seiler, a sports scientist from Texas who had recently moved to Norway, began analysing the training habits of elite athletes in a variety of endurance sports including rowing, cross-country skiing, cycling and running. What he found contradicted the “no pain, no gain” philosophy he’d encountered in his own career as a competitive rower.
Across sports, the top athletes seemed to spend about 80 per cent of their training time at a relatively low effort. The other 20 per cent was very hard. This “polarised” training distribution, as it has come to be known, enabled athletes to rack up large quantities of training without burning themselves out while still reaping the benefits of high-intensity workouts.
This 80/20 split allows professionals and weekend warriors alike to balance pleasure and meaning. During the low-intensity training the athletes chat with friends, enjoy the scenery and generally have a pleasant time. The high-intensity training is hard, but researchers have found that elite athletes rate these workouts as the most satisfying. If you’re exercising four times a week, for example, choose one day to push hard and keep the other three easy.
A simple test of whether you’re going easy enough on the lighter days is the ability to speak out loud in complete sentences – which may require you to slow down more than you expect. As for the hard days, that depends on your level of experience and tastes, but it should include, at least, brief periods of sustained discomfort.
At the end of the day, then, the question of whether your workout should be painful or pleasurable may be misguided, said Dr Inzlicht: “I really do think it’s both,” he said.
By Alex Hutchinson © 2022 The New York Times
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.