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No pain, no gain?

We have all heard the exercise-related axiom “no pain, no gain.” But how true is that axiom?This saying would be more accurate as “no pain, some gain; some pain, more gain.” Current research suggests that there are some health benefits from relatively small amounts of activity which is at lower intensity and occurring in relatively small units. At the same time, there is evidence of a dose response to exercise: higher volumes of activity confer greater benefits in terms of cardiovascular fitness and reduced risk for all-cause mortality.

Research has shown that prolonged periods of sitting increases health risks and that reducing, or just interrupting, sedentary time can have health benefits. There is an increased hazard for myocardial infarction with increased sitting suggesting that just sitting less could have a health benefit. Research has shown that breaking up sedentary time, even when total sedentary time was the same, resulted in lower waist circumference (an indicator of abdominal obesity and a cardiovascular risk factor). Managing sedentary behavior could reduce risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease (Dempsey et al., 2014).

In addition to the benefits of just sitting less, light physical activity has been found to have beneficial effects on a number of metabolic biomarkers. Herzig et al. (2014) found lower levels of insulin resistance, LDL cholesterol, and visceral fat in individuals with light intensity walking (30-35% of maximum oxygen uptake) as long as the amount of walking was in the range of 6500 daily steps. Fagard et al. (2001) found that moderate intensity exercise (40-50% of maximal performance) for three-five weekly session of 30-60-minute duration resulted in beneficial blood pressure reductions for both systolic and diastolic pressures; there was no convincing evidence that exercise at higher intensities had more benefit for reducing blood pressure.

Some exercise, even small to moderate amounts, can have health benefits. But higher volumes of exercise can have even greater benefit. For example, in terms of lipid regulation, specifically raising good cholesterol (HDL-C), high volume, high intensity exercise than more moderate levels of exercise. In looking at all-cause mortality (the risk of death from any cause), exercise appears to have a dose response. As the level of activity increases, the risk of all-cause mortality decreases. In addition, high intensity exercise, with high volume (long amounts of time) or low volume (less amount of total time) in beneficial for health and fitness. It seems that the high-intensity aspect of the exercise is the element that is most important in achieving health benefits.

Yes, there are gains from physical activity/exercise that are not painful, but there may be even greater benefit if you are willing to have a little discomfort. But some activity is better than no activity, and just interrupting long periods of sitting can have health benefits.


Dempsey, P. C., Owen, N., Biddle, S. J., & Dunstan, D. W. (2014). Managing sedentary behavior to reduce the risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Current diabetes reports, 14(9), 522.

Fagard, R. H. (2001). Exercise characteristics and the blood pressure response to dynamic physical training. Medicine and Science is Sports and Exercise, 33, Supplement 3, S-4934

Herzig, K. H., Ahola, R., Leppäluoto, J., Jokelainen, J., Jämsä, T., & Keinänen-Kiukaanniemi, S. (2014). Light physical activity determined by a motion sensor decreases insulin resistance, improves lipid homeostasis and reduces visceral fat in high-risk subjects: PreDiabEx study RCT. International journal of obesity, 38(8), 1089.


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