Many of us pride ourselves on the ability to power through a challenging workout. We think by pushing our physical boundaries to the limit, we can grow faster, stronger or leaner.
And it's true, to an extent. But sometimes grinning and bearing it crosses the line into something potentially harmful for your health.
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While it may be a tough pill to swallow (especially if you have a "no pain, no gain" mentality), now and then, the best thing you can do for your body is slow down and shorten your sweat session.
Here, Joanie Johnson, CPT, founder of Strong Mom Society, explains when you should abbreviate your workout.
1. You're in Pain
"Pain is our body's way of telling us something isn't right," Johnson says. Pain could be a sign of an injury or acute inflammation, i.e., you're overloading or straining a muscle or tendon.
Or it can simply be a signal to fix your alignment (or readjust your breathing pattern) to achieve more functional mechanics, she adds.
Either way, forcing yourself to keep going won't serve you. In fact, it might just make things worse.
What You Should Do
If you feel a pang of pain, stop what you're doing to assess and regroup.
If the pain is sudden and sharp, you might have an injury. "Seek out the appropriate form of care, whether that be emergency medical services [depending on the severity of the pain], an appointment with a physical therapist or other body worker or head home for R.I.C.E. — rest, ice, compression, elevation — therapy," Johnson says.
Alternatively, if it's a chronic pain — i.e., it happens every time you perform a specific type of exercise — work with a trainer or physical therapist to assess your mechanics and muscular imbalances, Johnson says. Under the guidance of a skilled professional, you can safely identify the source of your pain and learn strategies to heal, manage or prevent it.
If the pain is in your chest and you're having difficulty breathing or the pain doesn't change with the movement of your arms, seek immediate medical attention. This can be a sign of a life-threatening condition such as a heart attack.
2. You Feel Nauseated or Faint
"While this is not usually the sign of a serious issue, you'll definitely want to scale back, shorten or possibly stop your workout," Johnson says. That's because your body is still trying to communicate its needs. For example, fatigue, hunger and dehydration are the most common reasons for nausea and dizziness, she says.
"You may also be experiencing a reaction to certain foods, hormones, smells, stress or toxins," Johnson adds.
What You Should Do
Heed your body. Sip water slowly and grab a snack to help regulate your blood sugar, Johnson says. If you're dehydrated or hungry, these should cover the bases and make you feel better. And if you decide to continue your workout, rest as needed, taking breaks to practice deep diaphragmatic breathing, she says.
But if you feel nauseated or faint frequently during workouts, the safest bet is to talk to your doctor.
3. You're Having Trouble Breathing
Sometimes a strenuous sweat session can have you huffing and puffing, especially if you're new to a particular exercise. But, other times, feeling winded during a workout can be an indication of a health issue.
For example, chronic dyspnea — the medical term for a shortness of breath — while working out may be related to a heart problem (like stiff heart syndrome or a diastolic dysfunction) or lung disease (like emphysema or bronchitis), according to University of Utah Health.
Other conditions like seasonal allergies and exercise-induced asthma (when strenuous physical activity triggers a narrowing of the airways in the lungs) can also cause shortness of breath, Johnson says.
What You Should Do
If your struggle to breathe strikes suddenly, you're gasping for air or choking or you're experiencing dizziness or confusion, seek out medical attention immediately, Johnson says. A doctor can properly assess, diagnose and treat the underlying cause of your shortness of breath.
But if you're breathlessness is related to deconditioning — meaning, you aren't accustomed to exercise or you're jumping into a new routine after a long absence — you should gently build up your stamina, Johnson says. In other words, slow and steady. Pacing yourself will help you achieve the ability to work at a harder rate of exertion in the future.
You might start by focusing on improving the strength of your diaphragm, i.e., your main breathing muscle, Johnson says. "Most people don't utilize it to their full capacity because they are chest breathers, which is often caused by stress," she says.
With dedication, you can see results quickly. "Physical therapists, corrective exercise specialists and some specialized trainers can help improve your breathing mechanics in just a few sessions," Johnson says.
If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention — like dizziness, trouble breathing or fainting — or call 911. If you can't afford medical care, you can find low-cost options in your community through HealthCare.gov.
4 Signs It's Safe to Push Through a Workout
So, now that you know when you should pump the brakes and shorten a sweat session, how can you tell if it's physically safe to muscle through? Here, Johnson shares scenarios when it's OK to push yourself.
1. You Feel Down, Sad or Unmotivated
Sometimes it's our mood — and not a medical issue — that impedes our daily exercise routine.
"Our brains can be one of our biggest obstacles when it comes to pushing through a workout," Johnson says.
On days when you're feeling blah, try doing some light movement and reassess your mood.
"The endorphins you'll get from a workout may be exactly what you need to lighten your mood and make you feel better," she says.
Moving your body can improve your mental health. Doing just 15 minutes of high-intensity exercise (like running) a day or an hour of low-intensity exercise (like walking) is linked with a lower risk of developing depression, according to Harvard Health Publishing.
And you don't even need to fit everything in at once: All the little movements add up. Try taking the stairs, walking on breaks or sneaking in spurts of other exercise throughout the day (read: crank out kitchen counter push-ups while you wait for the microwave or do planks between TV commercials).
2. You're Sore From Your Last Workout
There's a difference between pain and soreness. As we know, pain is your body's way of warning you something's up. On the other hand, soreness from yesterday's workout is just a sign your muscles worked hard.
Muscle aches are often associated with mild inflammation or micro-tears in your muscles, according to the Cleveland Clinic. While it may sound harsh or even harmful, it's actually a good thing. That's because once these mini tears (often the result of loading the muscle with weight) repair, your muscles grow bigger and stronger.
Still, feeling achy doesn't automatically mean you must skip the gym. Just be strategic: Instead of training the same sore muscles, choose another workout targeting different muscle groups, Johnson says. So, for example, if your legs are spent from yesterday's lower-body day, switch it up and focus on your upper body today.
In addition, drinking lots of water, getting a massage, stretching, foam rolling and gentle movement (like mobility exercises) will all help reduce muscle soreness, Johnson adds.
3. You’re Tired
When you're yawning, working out is probably the last thing you want to do. But, ironically, pushing your body might give it an energy boost.
"It may feel counterintuitive, but choosing the right type of workout when you are tired can actually energize you," Johnson says. On these days, opt for lighter, gentler movement (think: yoga or a stroll in nature) that you find enjoyable. This will increase your energy level instead of exhausting your body more, she says.
Also, stay hydrated and eat nutrient-dense foods. Proper nutrition will help you feel more alert, less fatigued and avoid energy-sapping sugar crashes, Johnson says.
4. You Feel Self-Conscious or Insecure
"Many people feel uncomfortable moving their bodies in a public setting," Johnson says. Yep, some days, your inner self-doubt monster may get the best of you and convince you to keep your butt on the couch.
But whether you're intimidated by a gym setting or feeling insecure in your body, you shouldn't let it limit you: Everyone deserves a safe space to exercise and enjoy those feel-good endorphins.
If you're not ready or feeling up to joining the gym, Johnson recommends starting a movement practice at home. Fortunately, there's an abundance of online workout options that you can do from the comfort of your living room. You can even hire a virtual personal trainer to help motivate and support you while you gain confidence, she says.