Muscle soreness and cramps associated with exercise may deter some from working out or participating in physical activity, but following a few tips to better understand, prevent and treat aches and pains can be key to enjoying exercise and staying motivated in a fitness routine. In an address to health and fitness professionals at the seventh-annual ACSM Health & Fitness Summit & Exposition, Carol Torgan, Ph.D., FACSM emphasized exercisers should understand muscle discomfort is part of the program.
Muscle soreness, which typically occurs a day or two after an activity, results from microscopic muscle or connective tissue damage. These aches and pains should be minor, and are simply indications that muscles are adapting to your fitness regimen. Torgan encourages health and fitness instructors to explain the likelihood of muscle soreness to new exercisers. “Health and fitness professionals are the first line of defense for people misinformed about exercise. It’s really important they have the background knowledge to describe initial muscle pain and soreness so the person doesn’t treat it as an obstacle to exercise,” she says.
Torgan recommends these tips to address muscle soreness:
* Don’t interpret soreness as sorely out-of-shape,” says Torgan. “Some people think they have no business exercising because exercise is ‘painful.’ That’s not the case. The soreness is there simply because your muscle is learning something new, and the benefits of exercise far outweigh any initial discomfort.”
* Gentle stretching may help restore flexibility
* Massage may also offer some pain relief
* Application of balms, creams and/or ice, as well as submersion in warm water, may provide temporary relief. The best treatment, says Torgan, is to take it easy for a few days while your body adapts.
* Don’t avoid activity because of muscle soreness, says Torgan. In fact, keeping the muscle in motion with light exercise can be beneficial.
* Talk to your health and fitness instructor about muscle pain or soreness. It’s normal to feel soreness, particularly after new moves, but if you’re concerned, talk to your healthcare provider or instructor for more information.
* Muscle cramps, intense, involuntary contractions of the muscle, typically occur toward the end of a long workout or competition. Cramps are traditionally thought to stem from dehydration or electrolyte imbalances (loss in body salt through sweat), but this is not always the case.
“Athletes and exercisers are not the only group to experience painful muscle cramps,” said Torgan. “Musicians often get cramps, but they do not have a large sweat loss. Cramping is likely the results of using a muscle repetitively so that becomes fatigued,” she says. “This may trigger abnormal neural activity that results in involuntary muscle contractions. And, there are also some unknown factors in muscle cramps,” she added. “For instance, if the whole body is dehydrated, why does only one muscle cramp? Researchers are interested in solving this dilemma. This leads us to think that the main cause of a muscle cramp is fatigue of the muscle.”
There’s no “cure” for muscle cramps, but Torgan recommends:
* Stretch regularly, stay well hydrated, take in a well-balanced diet and be conditioned for exercise.
* When cramps occur, hold the muscle in a stretched position until the cramp subsides.
Drinking pickle juice or pinching the upper lip or nostril are urban-legend type remedies for muscle cramps that some athletes swear are effective, says Torgan.
“If you know you’re taking a vacation and you’ll be hiking up and down hills, you can expect some short-term damage in the muscle that results in soreness. But if you do some downhill walking beforehand, your muscles will adapt to your planned activity,” said Torgan. “It’s amazing that one bout of activity inoculates the muscle from further soreness for a number of weeks.”