From Benjamin Franklin to Jane Fonda, history is full of esteemed people who hail the wisdom of self-improvement through suffering.
In today’s fitness industry, stopping an exercise out of deference to pain is the hallmark of a weak character. But this doesn’t actually bear out; there exists no correlation between pain and acquired benefit. The “no pain, no gain” mentality, employed day after day, often leads to chronic injury.
Like many athletes, I injured myself repeatedly—to the point that the injury became chronic—before I finally listened to my body.
While there is a lot to say about how embedded and problematic this mentality remains in gym culture, I want to talk about what I found on the other side of my injury, in the rehab clinic and elsewhere, where the very motto that had driven me headlong into chronic injury remained central to ideas of recovery.
My experience with physical therapy is a common one: I was prescribed one of those stretch-‘til-you-sweat regimens and a lot of “core” workouts. The stretches set off all the alarm bells in my nervous system, but I was told to go deeper, deeper; relief was on the other side. The core work occasionally felt good–at the time–but my hip flexors became inflamed and ached for days afterwards. I went on to try Pilates, Egoscue, yoga, Chi-Running, Qigong, and a slew of alternative physical therapies, looking for a way out of pain. At best these allowed me brief snatches of half-comfort; at worst they increased my pain. When this is your experience with every form of rehab, you naturally conclude that rehab is just a necessarily painful process.
It turns out, I was mistaken.
When I told a friend that everything I was doing seemed to be making me worse, she suggested that I just do what feels good. At the time, I laughed; it had been over a year since I’d felt what one would call “good” inside my body. At that point I’d concluded that my body was simply incapable of the relief I was seeking. If exercises felt bad at the time and worse afterwards, my body, not the people I was working with, was to blame. Had I believed that there existed a way of moving that could result in immediate relief, I would have listened to her; I would have discarded all the methods that weren’t working and used my time and energy searching instead for methods that would.
For those in chronic pain: though you may have tried everything, though you may hardly remember a time when you were not in pain, know this: movement modalities that are extremely effective, and feel good, both during and afterwards, do exist. Consider ditching the next sado-Taoist at the clinic encouraging you to “accept the cramp, move into the cramp, become the cramp” and apply the pleasure principle as a litmus test. Through trial and error, you will find people who truly understand the human body, whose methods are tempered by the scientific process of trial and error. What you experience when you work with anyone is the most crucial trial: the ultimate verdict of their knowledge. If their method brings relief–if it feels natural and good–then you are working with someone who understands the human body. If, on the other hand, you squeeze and strain and push and nothing is relieved, then move on; you haven’t failed. The method has failed you.