The new year can be a great time to reflect on the past year and think about areas that you want to improve.  According to behavioral specialists, there is something called the “fresh start effect”.  This suggests that individuals may feel more motivated to make changes and are more likely to engage in goal-related behaviors when they perceive the beginning of a new period.  This can be Mondays, but it can also be the start of a new year.

Fitness goals tend to be very popular in the new year.  One statistic reported 12% of gym members sign up in January, making it the busiest month for gyms.  However, on average, most people are likely to give up on them by January 19th.   I would speculate that perhaps one reason may be because they made the goal too aggressive and perhaps injured themselves in the process.

This is a good time to be reminded that exercise is a two-way conversation with your body.

I was reminded of this myself when I was working out with a credentialed trainer who wisely stated, “if you feel pain, stop.”  It felt good to hear that and now I remind myself of that statement often. It has exponentially improved the quality of my workouts so I thought it might be a concept worth sharing.

That said, it doesn’t mean that soreness is a bad thing.  After all, if we don’t break down our muscles, we can’t build them back up.  So how do we know the difference?  Below are some guidelines to consider when embarking on an exercise regimen.

  1. There is a difference between being sore and being in pain.


Muscle Soreness Injury
General ache Pinpointed pain
Lasts 3 to 4 days Lasts longer than a week
Hurts when you move, doesn’t hurt when you’re still Hurts when you’re still and when you move
Dull, heavy, tight, stiff Stinging, radiating, burning, sharp, stabbing


  1. Muscle soreness is a sign of muscle growth. When you strain your muscles (i.e.. strength training), you damage the muscle fibers and then your body repairs them, making them stronger than before. When your muscles feel tight, stiff, and heavy, usually for 24-72 hours after a workout, this is known as Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (aka DOMS) and should only last a few days.  Gentle stretching can help alleviate some of the discomfort.


  1. Conversely, pain that can be pinpointed to a joint, bone or tendon could be a sign of injury and you stop performing that activity. Additionally, if it is an actual injury (see chart above), it is important to see your MD right away. Injuries that are left untreated can get worse and delay the healing process.


  1. Start off small and work your way up. Start with your body weight and nail down your form.  While it may be tempting to use heavier weights at first, it is more important to understand the proper form to avoid joint or back injury. For instance, when you lunge, keep your knees behind your toes, not in front.


In summary, be kind to your body.  Remind yourself that we are what we consistently do. We don’t have to work so hard in one single workout that we risk injuring ourselves if we accept that we will be working out and incrementally improving our fitness for the rest of our lives.  It is also important to recognize that some days we may feel stronger than others and that is okay.

There are many factors that influence our physical capabilities that can vary from day to day such as sleep quality, hormonal fluctuations, and whether we fueled appropriately before the workout.  So, ignore the shame-filled, fatphobic rhetoric that fills many fitness spaces. Remember, exercise is a two-way conversation with your body.

Barbara Broggelwirth, RDN, CDN is a registered dietitian nutritionist who works with Bariatric and Medical Weight Management patients to help them achieve their health and weight loss goals.