I first heard this phrase in 5th grade from a gym teacher straight out of central casting. He wore gray sweats, a crew cut, and barked commands out of one side of his mouth, the other side clenching a whistle.
"Climb that rope Dawson!," he snarled. "No pain, no gain."
Actually, it was more, "Grip that rope until it hurts Dawson, or you'll fall 30 feet to gym floor."
Most people have come to accept this fitness edict with a few, injury-saving caveats. For example: You already know to stop when any "holy-shit" debilitating pain strikes (six-to-ten range on a scale of one to ten). In this case, if you continue, all you'll gain is a trip to the ER.
But when you have general discomfort (three to five) in the weight room or spin class, whether from general exhaustion or pains in your joints or muscles, chances are you hang in there thinking it's an investment in your longevity, strength, and how good you look in a bespoke button-down.
Is this really a safe level of pain and is it necessary for your overall health?
Well, according to the medical community, it's hardly a requirement. Experts point to the Copenhagen City Heart Study, where researchers tracked nearly 20,000 men and women for 20 years, monitoring their physical activity and health. Not surprisingly, the study found those who worked out regularly suffered fewer heart troubles and cases of cancer—and ultimately lived far longer than those who didn't. But, they also found that those who worked out nice and easy (no pain), once a week, lived just as long as those who worked out with greater frequency and at higher intensity (some pain).
So working out—whether it hurts or not—will gain you a longer life. But it's up to you to choose an approach. If you just want to add years, then simply take a stroll now and again. If you prefer to experience those years with a sexy body, choose to push through some moderate pain to help shed the pounds and build bigger muscles. You have nothing to lose; a lot of life to gain. Remember, the study didn't track which exercising group looked better at the beach or had more sex.
—Mike Dawson is a magazine writer and editor and a regular contributor to Details.