Should exercise hurt?

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

June 2013

Should exercise hurt? Maybe - just a little. Now that nice weather is here you might have had some muscle soreness the day after you've put in a new flower bed or gone for a long bike ride or hike. That's known as Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness or DOMS and you're sure to experience it when you go to the gym after a long absence. It may not be pleasant but it's normal. Muscle fibers that are called upon to finally do something after weeks or months of inactivity are damaged in the process. That's what makes them sore but in the course of repair they actually become larger and stronger.

If you're just starting a fitness program you can minimize DOMS by starting very slowly. If your goal is to walk for one hour several days a week you should begin with no more than 15 minutes on the first day and add five minutes a day for as long as it takes to reach your target. Remember that hills, whether up or down, cause more muscle strain and you should adjust accordingly.

Everyone should do resistance exercise using weights or machines two or three times a week but if you are new to that kind of activity don't be embarrassed to use the lightest possible weights for at least two weeks. You will not only avoid delayed soreness, you will open up dormant blood vessels within muscles and give your tendons and ligaments time to gradually become more flexible. You will still experience some delayed soreness but it will be mild and it won't deter you from continuing an exercise program.

When pain occurs during exercise it's a signal to stop. It probably means that you are lifting too much or too fast. Sudden sharp pain could indicate a torn muscle or tendon. Unless you're really overdoing it that kind of injury usually heals on its own with some rest. Be especially wary if it occurs around the knee joint or the shoulder. Those are the two most complicated joints in the body. A painful shoulder could indicate injury to the rotator cuff, a structure that consists of several parts and that often takes months to heal. Exercises involving the knee or the shoulder should begin with light weights and the movements ought to be very slow.

Regular physical activity is critical for good health. Don't blow it.

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at