Flog Till You Drop? Maybe Don't Exercise So Hard

We've all heard it.  And most believe it.  No pain no gain.

But a new study has found, as Gretchen Reynolds reports, that "while it is possible to push through fatigue to reach new levels of physical performance, it is not necessarily wise."

She writes that scientists have long been puzzled about just how muscles know that they’re about to run out of steam "and need to convey that message to the brain, which has the job of actually telling the body that now would be a good time to drop off the pace and seek out a bench."

Earlier research established that contracting muscles release a number of substances, including lactate, certain acids and adenosine triphosphate, or ATP, a chemical involved in the creation of energy. The levels of each of those substances were shown to rise substantially when muscles were working hard, Reynolds notes.

Reynolds goes into much more detail than I will here, but the bottom line is that "the feeling of fatigue in our muscles during exercise 'probably begins' when these substances start to build up. Small amounts of the substances stimulate specific nerve cells in the muscles that, through complicated interactions with the brain, cause the first feelings of tiredness and heaviness in our working muscles," she paraphrases Alan R. Light, a professor at the University of Utah and senior author of the study. 

"These feelings bear only a slight relationship to the remaining fuel and energy in our muscles," Reynolds points out. "They don’t indicate that the muscle is about to be forced to stop working. But they are an early physiological warning system, a way for the body to recognize that somewhere up ahead lies a limit."

Here's her advice: "Should your exercise goal be to become faster or stronger, find a pace or intensity that allows you to work out near and occasionally just beyond the boundary between fatigue and pain," a line that may differ day to day. If on the other hand, you want to exercise in an easier, more pleasurable way that you can sustain over longer periods, consider an intensity at which your muscles grow only slightly heavy and tired.

Common sense, but we don't always follow it.


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