I am preparing my lecture on older women’s exercise experiences when I come across a quote from 92 years old Felicity who attends a weekly exercise class: “Exercise is like life, it hurts you. As long as it hurts, it’s okay.” I am quite astounded! At Felicity’s age one should know a lot about life. I did think that we abandoned the ‘no pain, no gain’ philosophy already in the 1980s when Jane Fonda received much criticism of the dangers of her ‘going for the burn’ principle. Yet, women are increasingly participating in long distance endurance events where pain is a central and accepted element of the performance. Boot camps have gained popularity, and the television show ‘The Biggest Loser’ definitely premises pain as a necessary part of its participants’ exercise experiences. So, does this mean that exercise should be painful to be effective? What does it mean to be in pain when exercising? Why does pain seem to be central to physical activity?

Experiencing pain is not a new phenomenon among physically active women. For example, researchers have demonstrated that pain and injuries have become normal parts of sport and dance. Kevin Young, Phillip White, and William McTeer observed that sport men view pain as a part of appropriate masculine behavior. According to these researchers, men adopt a ‘pain principle’ according to which one’s worth is enhanced through enduring pain.

Interestingly, sport women appear to relate to pain in a very similar manner. While some researchers have concluded that women athletes have adopted a ‘masculinist’ model which valorizes the ‘no pain, no gain’ principle of male athletes, Jacqueline Allen Collinson is cautious about concluding that women simply imitate men. She also noted there is a common perception that women are even more pain-enduring and stoic than men, but Allen Collinson found that her response to a running injury was very similar to her male partner’s response to his own injury. Both reacted with anger, irritation, frustration, and despair to the painful body that prevented them from running. Allen Collinson also noted that running is not the only sport where pain is an essential element of women’s experiences.

For example, Elizabeth Pike and Joseph Maguire observed that women rowers took pain as a ‘part of the game.’ Women rowers were also proud of their blisters, calluses, bruises, and cuts. The authors noted that pain tolerance in women’s sport is problematic when it masks “the pain related to injuries that should prohibit participation, rather than the pain of exertion in physically demanding sports, which is not necessarily indicating damage to the body. In the former case, disassociating from the pain may clearly increase the risk of serious injury” (p. 240).

Pike also observed that women athletes differentiated between types of pain. For example, one rower explained the difference between "the general masochistic agony each time you train . . . enjoyable pain" and "your body saying 'stop, something’s wrong.'" Generally, having to stop indicated an injurious pain. While pain is considered an essential aspect of many sport women’s experiences, the researchers are careful to detach it from a ‘natural’ female (or male) trait. Instead, the cultural context of sport, they argued, favors taking risks, including training in pain or even injured, to maximize one’s performance success.

Dancers similarly seem to accept pain as a necessary part of their culture. Several researchers demonstrated that dancers ignore pain and become ‘numb’ to their bodily feelings in order to continue dancing. For example, dancers in Krista McEwen and Kevin Young’s study regarded the ultra-competitive atmosphere, where women dancers face even less chances to obtain work than male dancers, as one reason for risking pain and injury. These dancers either ignored or just put up with the pain. Similar to the ultrarunners I discussed in my previous blog, some dancers also felt that they needed to be in pain to know that they were pushing their limits.

In my own study of semi-professional contemporary dancers’ experiences of pain, one dancer explained that "I think pain is like a permanent thing…I think I do have, how to say, not an addiction to pain but unless I feel some pain I don’t think I'm working." Dancers, like athletes, sometimes talked about ‘good pain’ and ‘bad pain.' Good pain is everyday ‘hurt’ associated with muscles whereas pain in joints, ligaments, and bones indicated bad pain. Dancers also felt anger and shame of their pain and guilt for letting down ‘their team’ due to possible injury.

 In my study, the dancers had some difficulty, however, distinguishing between pain and injury and thus, did not always know when they passed from feeling pain to actually injuring their bodies. In their minds, however, injury tended to take place due to sudden accidents such as a bad landing – these made them stop dancing! As long as one can move, one is not injured, they said. Dancers also seemed to blame themselves for their injuries. At the same time, the dancers in several studies expressed an extreme passion to dance and seemed to be willing to endure a great deal of pain to keep their commitment.

It is clear that women athletes’ and women dancers’ experiences are very similar: both operate in performance contexts where pain is an expected and accepted aspect of the culture. It is remarkable, however, that athletes and dancers at several participation levels tend to ignore their bodily pain. While a majority of studies on pain and injury focus on (men’s) elite sport, Allen Collinson identified as a recreational runner, the rowers in Pike and Maguire’s study were recreational athletes, and none of the dancers in my study danced professionally. All these women felt a passionate commitment to their physical activity and operated in a culture imitating high performance. So far we have learned that:

1. high performance culture facilitates risk taking for success;

2. women athletes and dancers ignore pain to be successful;

3. pain, however, can be ‘good’ or ‘bad’;

4. these women, regardless of their performance level, are extremely passionate and committed to their activity.

Can any of this speak to Felicity’s comment about exercise? Does ‘fitness culture’ encourage one to ignore pain? Are committed exercisers prone to pain and injuries? Is there good and bad pain?

Within ‘fitness culture’ participants exercise for a variety of reasons. While some might be elite performers, for many exercisers the goal is to be fit ‘for life.' Consequently, the ‘fitness culture’ can offer an environment where it is not necessary to take risks or tolerate pain. Many instructors are, indeed, careful not to promote the ‘no gain, no pain’ philosophy, but this does not mean that everyone exercises entirely pain free. From the athletes and dancers we also learned that even they, as professionals in bodily activity, do not always know what is ‘soreness,’ what is pain, and when pain turns into an injury. So, how is an average exerciser to know when to push one’s body and when to stop? Does working hard have to be painful? Can one be passionate about one’s fitness regime without ignoring one’s body?

In physical activity contexts, bodily pain is usually a sign that something is wrong. This should mean that one stops. The dancers and athletes also know this, but felt that they could not afford to stop due to the requirements of their performance culture. Some dancers did feel, however, that masking pain by, for example, taking aspirin was not good as that made them ignore their bodies’ warning signs. In this sense, pain is ‘good:’ it warns us about danger. But continuing to exercise in pain, then, cannot be good. There might, however, be other bodily sensations that we might confuse with ‘pain,’ yet not every bodily signal is ‘pain.’ Some feelings might be signs that the body is working, that one is putting ‘effort,’ or that the muscles are fatigued. For example, being ‘out of breath’ when running or exercising is a sign that the aerobic system is working to bring oxygen to the body and one does not need to stop when this entirely natural system kicks in. Releasing a very tight muscle will also provide bodily feelings, but instead of stopping, one should let the release complete. How do we learn to read these bodily signs?

It is common that we no longer use our bodies for everyday tasks, transport, or work. It is also common that we do not pay attention to our bodies until we feel pain. Therefore, it is no wonder that many of us cannot really ‘feel our bodies’ to know that one part of it is tight or another part of it is weak or that we should move this way and not that way. An exercise class can be one place to get to know one’s body. This requires, however, that one is actually thinking of the movements while doing them instead ‘zoning’ out hoping to be somewhere else. Because it is very difficult for anyone else to sense the bodily feelings for us, the only way is to learn to be sensitive to one’s body oneself. Some exercise forms, such as Pilates and yoga, emphasize such ‘mindfulness,’ but ‘being present’ during any exercise is important if one is to learn to pay attention to one’s body before it’s too late.

By being aware of our bodies we can, hopefully, learn when we are exercising ‘hard’ or effectively and when we are exercising incorrectly, inefficiently, or pushing ourselves beyond our capacity. Learning about one’s body can also provide a meaningful fitness goal that allows us to focus on safe exercise practices. This is one way of being passionate about one’s exercise without being in pain.

Works Cited:

Allen Collinson, J. (2005). Emotions, interaction and the injured sporting body. International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 40(2), 221- 240.

McEwan, K. & Young, K. (2011). Ballet and pain: Reflections on a risk-dance culture. Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise and Health, 3(2), 152-173.

Paulson, S. (2005). How various ‘cultures of fitness’ shape subjective experiences of growing older. Aging and Society, 25(2), 229-244.

Pike, E.C.J. and Maguire, J.A. (2003) ‘Injury in Women’s Sport: Classifying Key Elements of “Risk Encounters”’, Sociology of Sport Journal 20: 232–51.

Pike, E. J. C. (2005). Doctors just say “rest and take ibuprofen:” Critical examination of the role of ‘non-orthodox’ health care in women’s sport. International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 40(2), 209-219.

Young, K. & White, P. (1995). Sport, physical danger and injury: The experience of elite women athletes. Journal of Sport and Social Issues, 19, 45–61.

Young, K., White, P., & McTeer, W. (1994). Body talk: Male athletes reflect on sport, injury and pain. Journal of Sport & Social Issues, 11, 175–94.

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