You've probably heard the saying, "No pain, no gain," at least once from a trainer or a fitness guru on an exercise DVD. While working through a certain amount of soreness is to be expected, especially when you first start exercising, it's important to know how much is too much. Moderation is key; don't try to exercise too much, too fast. For example, starting a running program with a two-mile jog may be too much for your body, whereas a half-mile jog allows you to build up your distance slowly.
Safe Strength Training
Weight-bearing exercise is vital for building strong muscles and bones. Benefits of weight training include reducing the symptoms of osteoporosis, arthritis, obesity, diabetes and even depression, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Whether you lift weights at home or use weight machines at the gym, you'll want to stagger your workouts to target different muscle groups on different days. Don't think that working your biceps daily will strengthen your arms fast -- Harvard Medical School reports that overtraining can cause stiffness, stress fractures, and inflammation that can ultimately derail your efforts to strengthen your body. Let soreness be your guide to work a different body part that day.
Exercises and Tools
Fight the urge to lie around on days you're too sore to work out. Light cardiovascular exercise generates soothing warmth for your sore muscles. Go for a walk or a gentle swim, using a kickboard and alternating strokes. Try a restorative yoga class, in which you hold poses for extended periods and use props to help relieve muscle tension. Perform stretches aimed at loosening tight muscles. Props to keep at home that help relieve soreness include tennis balls for rolling out tight arches, elastic physical therapy bands, and foam rollers, tubes of stiff foam that release muscle tension.
Over-the-counter painkillers like ibuprofen and acetaminophen, taken as directed, can provide relief from soreness and might allow you to get through a workout you thought you'd have to miss. Soaking in a hot bath can help, and some athletes swear by adding different salts and herbs to their bath water. According to "Yoga Journal," New Mexico Ayurvedic yoga therapist Michele Khalef, tosses in a handful of baking soda and powdered ginger, while drugstores still sell the old standard remedy, Epsom salts. Massage can also help, as can applying a heating pad to the sore area.
When to See a Doctor
If your muscle pain prevents basic movement and becomes too intense to bear, it may be time to consult a physician. The MayoClinic.com recommends taking a break from your workout and paying a visit to your doctor if the pain lasts more than a week, includes signs of infection like swelling and redness, or affects the circulation in your legs. Likewise, if the pain is sudden, severe, or plagues you with every workout, you may have an injury that needs treatment. Your doctor can prescribe imaging, such as X-rays and MRIs, that lead to proper diagnosis and treatment of injury.
Neville Smithson did his undergraduate work at Hampshire College and earned an MFA in creative writing at the University of Cincinnati. Having had a change of heart about his passions, Smithson is now back in Massachusetts, where he enrolled in a combined MA/PhD physical therapy program.