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What your body is telling you when you work out

Woman working out on a treadmill at a gym.

Your body is giving you clues into how it feels when you work out.

Are you listening to your body? Like really listening? When you work out your body will let you know how it’s feeling and how much more it could be pushed or if you should take it easier. 

“Exercise is a key element of health and longevity and should be among the top priorities for each of us throughout life,” says David Rust, MD, an orthopedic surgeon at PeaceHealth in Bellingham, Washington.

It can be hard to know what signs you should pay attention to when working out. Am I sweating too much? Am I breathing too heavy? Is my heart rate too high? These are some of the questions that you may ask yourself. 

Fitness level

It’s important to ease into a fitness routine. Before you get started on a new plan be sure to talk with your doctor about any concerns that you may have.

Once approved, you’ll likely want to start at a low- or moderate-level of activity. 

Here's an easy way to tell if your exercise is moderate: You're at a moderate level if you can talk, but not sing during the activity. If you can't talk, you're working too hard. Overexertion is dangerous. If you're short of breath or in pain, it's time to back off. 

Sweat as an indicator

Sweating alone is not a bad thing and it’s your body’s natural way of cooling itself down. But you may wonder if you’re sweating too much, and that answer depends on many factors including genetics and workout conditions. Make sure to drink water or a sports drink before, during and after your workout to help reduce the possibility of dehydration. 

The way you breathe can impact your workout

In general, you want to maintain a proper breathing technique during your workout. For example, when you’re doing a bicep curl, you’ll want to exhale as you’re curling your arm and inhale as you lower the weight.

Heart rate measurement

Knowing your target health rate helps you understand how physically fit you are. For example, if you are not active and not physically fit, your target heart rate may be a little lower than the target heart rate of someone who exercises every day. Using a tool like this gives you a target heart rate range based on how much you usually exercise. It can also guide you to learn how hard you should exercise to get the most aerobic benefit from your workout.

Exercise guide

If you’re new to working out, an exercise planning form can help get your started. As you answer the questions, you create your fitness plan. You may want to bring this form to your next doctor’s appointment to refine the plan together.

Pain and discomfort

Dr. Rust says that pain and discomfort can often prevent individuals from exercising and it is very important to understand which types of pain are okay to push through and which types are red flags that indicate that a problem may be getting worse. Don’t hesitate to reach out early to a therapist, doctor or other medical provider to help you understand the difference. Most degenerative problems are not worsened by exercises so even if you have discomfort, over time you may expect less pain and better function by continuing to exercise.

Warning signs for older adults

When you exercise, it's normal to have some minor muscle and joint soreness. “Expect your muscle, tendons and joints to hurt from time to time. Even professional athletes’ bodies are not perfect all the time. Don’t be afraid to adapt your training style and modify your routine to allow you to remain active while recovering. In most cases, active rehabilitation is going to speed the healing process compared to prolonged rest.” says Dr. Rust.

But other signs may point to something more serious. Stop exercising if you think you might be having a heart attack. Call 911 right away if your symptoms include pain, pressure, or a strange feeling in your chest, back, neck, jaw, or upper belly, or in one or both shoulders or arms.

“Stay strong and keep moving is my lifelong advice to all of my patients,” notes Dr. Rust. “The human body is complex and amazingly resilient. With age, our bodies eventually lose the capacity to heal and regenerate, but individuals who stay active and fit will sustain fewer injuries, heal quicker, and maintain better overall well-being.”