Sore Muscles? Why You Should Exercise Anyway

Story at-a-glance -

  • Regardless of the types of exercise you do, you have very likely experienced some type of muscle soreness, whether acute or delayed onset
  • Understanding why your muscles are sore and how you can minimize and accommodate sore muscles will help you deal with post-workout muscle pain, stiffness and tenderness
  • Contrary to popular belief, muscle soreness is not always a reason to skip your next workout; in fact, sore muscles can be a sign your fitness level is advancing
  • If you are dealing with sore muscles, rather than take an anti-inflammatory medication, you may want to try one of these natural remedies: a bath, foam rolling, heat, massage, rest or stretching

By Dr. Mercola

If you’ve been active at all — gardening, lifting weights or trying a new workout routine — you’ve very likely experienced some type of muscle soreness, whether acute or delayed onset. While it is common to experience post-exercise muscle soreness when you have just resumed activity after a period of inactivity, delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) can occur even during periods of consistent exercise.

Understanding why your muscles are sore and how you can both minimize and accommodate sore muscles will help you deal with muscle discomfort, tenderness and stiffness. You might be surprised to learn that sore muscles are not always a reason to skip your workout.

Why Exercise?

If you are still wondering why exercise is important, I’d like to remind you of a few of the reasons why your body needs physical activity on a regular basis. Because most of these benefits are temporary, not permanent, you will benefit most by getting active and staying active. In terms of benefits, exercise:

Boosts your metabolism and helps you to maintain a healthy weight

Helps you avoid chronic illnesses such as cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure and Type 2 diabetes

Reduces depression symptoms and improves sleep quality1

Soothes anxiety and improves your mood2

Supports your neurological system and brain so it resists shrinkage as you age; improves your cognitive abilities3

Tones and strengthens your muscles

Dealing With Post-Exercise Muscle Soreness

Very often when you exercise, especially if you’re trying something you’ve never done before or ramping up the intensity of an exercise you’ve been doing for a while, you experience muscle soreness, which can also be accompanied by cramping, pain and stiffness. Generally speaking, most of these outcomes are usually not a cause for concern. Later in this article, I will share some ways to treat muscle soreness at home.

While most people expect short-term muscle soreness, some are not prepared for DOMS — the gradually increasing soreness known to occur between 24 to 48 hours after you’ve been active. "DOMS is a common result of physical activity that stresses the muscle tissue beyond what it is accustomed to," said David Draper, professor of athletic training in the department of exercise sciences at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. As a result of the strain, says Draper, "Small microscopic tears occur in the muscle.”4

The act of creating these micro tears automatically signals your body to send amino acids and other nutrients to help repair stressed muscles. The more you exercise and stress your muscles, the more your body activates the muscle-repair process. Over time, your muscles continue to grow bigger and stronger. To help support the growth and rebuilding of your muscles, you’ll want to eat moderate amounts of high-quality protein as part of your daily diet.

According to Draper, DOMS occurs when your muscles are performing an eccentric or lengthening contraction, such as the portion of a bicep curl when you are lowering the weight back to its starting position. Some other activities normally associated with DOMS include jogging or running downhill, pushups, squats and weightlifting.5

In addition to DOMS-related pain, you may also experience sensitivity to touch, soreness, stiffness or weakness in the affected area. Fortunately, DOMS generally peaks in 24 to 72 hours and resolves completely in three to five days.6 "The aches and pains should be minor and are simply indications that [your] muscles are adapting to your fitness regimen," says Carol Torgan, Ph.D., health strategist and educator with the National Institutes of Health and spokesperson for the American College of Sports Medicine.7

Who Is Affected by Muscle Soreness?

Although you may think only hard-core exercisers or bodybuilders would be at risk for muscle soreness, especially DOMS, the truth is both beginners and longtime exercisers alike experience it. "Anyone can get cramps or DOMS, from weekend warriors to elite athletes," stated Torgan. "The muscle discomfort is simply a symptom of using your muscles and placing stresses on them that are leading to adaptations to make them stronger and better able to perform the task the next time."8

Given your susceptibility to muscle soreness, especially if you are just beginning to exercise, it’s important to set yourself up for success by understanding what your body may go through as it begins to build tolerance to regular exercise. If you experience a great deal of discomfort after your first workout and have not received proper knowledge or guidance, you may give up. About the need to coach new exercisers through pain, Torgan said:9

"The big problem is with people that aren't very fit [who] go out and try these things; they get all excited to start a new class and the instructors don't tell them that they might get sore. [B]ecause they aren't familiar with it, they might worry they've hurt themselves. Then they won't want to do it again."

Because your body adapts and builds tolerance to new exercise routines when you continue performing them, DOMS should become less of an issue for you over time. As your muscles gradually become conditioned, the frequency and intensity of DOMS will diminish. In fact, notes Torgan, “[T]he next time they do the activity, there will be less muscle tissue damage, less soreness and faster strength recovery.”10

How to Soothe Sore Muscles

Even if you begin to accept muscle soreness and pain as beneficial to the growth and development of a healthy body, chances are you’ll still want a few suggestions on how to soothe your sore muscles. Below are some suggested natural remedies:11,12

Anti-inflammatories

Instead of reaching for an over-the-counter pain reliever like acetaminophen or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen, you might want to try natural anti-inflammatories such as ginger, tart cherry juice or turmeric, to name a few. Some find the topical application of arnica or the use of arnica montana homeopathic pellets to provide relief. Be advised that NSAIDs are dangerous, particularly when taken for long periods of time.

Baths

For temporary relief from muscle pain and soreness, you might try taking a warm bath with Epsom salt.

Foam rolling

A light 10- to 15-minute session of foam rolling on sore muscles post-workout may help soothe aches and pains and reduce the effects of DOMS.

Heat

For muscle aches and pains, applying a heat pack will help bring blood flow to the area, which promotes healing, soothes pain and increases flexibility. The increased blood flows brings a greater flow of oxygen and nutrients to the affected area, while removing waste materials responsible for the pain.

Ice

If you suffer a sudden injury while working out, especially if it involves swelling, you can apply ice for the first 48 to 72 hours to ease pain and reduce secondary tissue damage. Apply ice for about 20 minutes once an hour.

Be sure to protect your skin by wrapping ice packs in a towel and, as best you can, wrap or compress the ice around the injured area to minimize swelling. If you are not sure if heat or ice would be better, check out my article When to Use Ice, When to Use Heat.

Light exercise

Swimming or walking may help loosen tight muscles and reduce pain. Since DOMS usually affects only a subset of the body parts that were worked, you may be able to focus on other muscles while the fatigued ones recover. "Since there's a loss in muscle strength … it's best to plan a few days of easy exercise to prevent further muscle damage and reduce the likelihood of injury," states Torgan.13

Massage

Massage releases endorphins, which help induce relaxation, relieve pain and reduce levels of stress chemicals such as cortisol and noradrenaline. Beyond that, massage therapy can also reduce anxiety and boost your health-related quality of life.

Rest

If you are experiencing head-to-toe muscle soreness or a great deal of fatigue in a particular muscle group, it’s OK to take a day or two of rest to allow your body to recover. Just don’t drop out for an extended period or you may lose most or all of the benefits you’ve achieved. On top of that, you’ll likely suffer even more pain and soreness later on when you try to get restarted.

Stretching

I prefer active to passive stretching and my favorite type is Active Isolated Stretching (AIS), which was developed by Aaron Mattes. With AIS, you hold each stretch for only two seconds, which works with your body's natural physiological makeup to improve circulation, increase the elasticity of muscle joints and help your body repair itself.

Five Reasons You Should Skip Your Workout

While skipping a workout is something you should do only selectively, certified strength and conditioning specialist Holly Perkins, author of “Lift to Get Lean,” told Women’s Health there are a few particular occasions when you will be better off taking it easy than exercising. Below are five reasons to skip your workout:14

Big event

If you have a big exercise-related event, such as a bike excursion, marathon or triathlon, coming up in the very near future, you’d be wise to skip your workout for a couple of days beforehand to ensure you’ll be adequately ready for the big day.

If you’ve been consistently training hard over the months leading up to your event, taking a day or two off won’t be detrimental. Typically, doing an intense workout the day before a big event will most certainly do more harm than good.

Certain Illnesses

If you’re suffering from a serious illness or the flu, your body will appreciate you giving it a break from working out, especially because exercise can tax your immune system. If you’re exhausted or feeling very ill you’ll want to avoid going to the gym where you would likely spread germs and put the health of others at risk, while possibly impeding your healing process.

That said, if you have a simple cold and you feel up to it, exercise can actually be beneficial. Increasing your body temperature enough to break a sweat may even help you to kill off invading viruses (it's sort of like a do-it-yourself fever).

Injury

If you have suffered a recent injury, or are still recovering from a past injury, to an area of your body that will be involved in your workout routine, it may be time to take a break. In some cases, you may be able to work around the injury, such as riding a stationary bike or doing a leg workout with a fractured finger, for example.

If your injured area features prominently in most exercise, such as a twisted ankle, you’d be wise to skip your workout until your ankle has fully healed. After that, you can ease back into exercise cautiously. States Perkins, "There does come a time when it's essential to start using the injured body part again, usually around three to four weeks after a mild injury."15

Intensity

If you routinely do intense workouts, it’s important to realize your muscles will need a certain amount of recovery time between workouts for you to receive maximum benefit. To achieve a higher level of fitness and strength, your muscles need the stress of exercise and a period of recovery.

Perkins suggests you rate your soreness on a scale of 1 to 10, where 10 is a “you can’t get out of bed” soreness. "If you are a 7 or 8 on that scale, let your muscles recover a bit more before going after a big workout," suggests Perkins. "Working out when those muscles are sore is interrupting the recovery process.”16

Overtraining

While the symptoms of overtraining aren't always clear-cut, Perkins suggests if you perform a typical workout five or more times per week — or work out intensely two to four times a week — you are a candidate for overtraining.

This might be you, particularly if you can identify with these overtraining symptoms: 1) You're not making steady progress on your fitness goals; 2) you're feeling increasingly weaker after workouts; 3) you’re dealing with increasing levels of exhaustion, particularly after completing multiple workouts in a row; and 4) you begin to dread going to the gym. "This can be your body telling you take a break," Perkins says.17

The Bottom Line: Keep Exercising Even When You Feel Sore

As you would expect, it takes weeks and months of consistent exercise to achieve noticeable results. As you go along, you might choose to accept tired, achy muscles as a signal they are being effectively worked and developed.

Of course, soreness is not necessary to see improvements, but it is a likely outcome, especially if you are trying something new that involves considerable effort, such as weightlifting. Even when it’s painful, experiencing some muscle soreness may encourage you to continue pursuing your fitness goals.

"Soreness can serve as encouragement in a workout program because people like immediate results,” says Draper. "So, something like soreness can give people encouragement that they are in fact working the muscle."18 That said, if you have experienced a sudden injury, consistently have pain while exercising or have pain that lasts more than a few days, it may be time to check in with your doctor.

The sooner you get checked out and begin healing, the sooner you’ll be able to get back to exercising. In spite of occasional muscle soreness, I can testify to the good feelings that come from exercise and the many, many positive benefits you’ll receive from being active. If you need help getting started with an exercise program, check out my fitness plan.

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