It’s time to finally move past “no pain no gain”

I encountered the Japanese word "Karoshi" (過労死) recently.

It's a specific word they use to talk about someone who works so hard that they literally die from work. This word started to really pick up steam in the 1980s when young, seemingly healthy executives in Japan would suddenly die. Having insane working hours (110 hours a week), and highly stressful responsibilities all contributed to their demise.

In English, we have words like "fatigued" or "burnt out," though those don't quite capture the severity of working yourself to the point where you are actively hurting your body. You're so focused on work that you're killing yourself.

I think in fitness, there's a “death by overwork” culture also.

The Problem with “No Pain, No Gain.”

Every time I see an Instagram post that talks about "Going past your limits," or "Pushing your body to the extreme," I cringe a little bit.

I mean, I get it. Some people love this language. It motivates. It gets them moving. It lets them run that marathon. Or force out that extra pull up.

But I'm afraid that the prevalence of this "No Pain, No Gain" mindset is setting us all up for some big problems down the line.

Shouldn’t I push myself in my workouts?

But isn’t pushing yourself part of how you improve and get stronger? If you’re too comfortable when training, you won’t ever progress.

Yes, that’s true. So here’s where we can make a distinction. (And be fair to the “no pain, no gain-ers.”)

Challenging yourself and putting yourself in some discomfort helps stimulate growth. It’s true in fitness and in life. If you stay in your comfort zone all the time, you won’t grow as an individual.

But similarly, if you’re always in discomfort, pushing yourself in your life. And then losing out on sleep. Getting sick. Continuing past that. Well... you get "Karoshi"- “death by overwork.” It's that extreme that I want to be careful to avoid. And I think in our culture, we have a tendency to encourage overwork.

Yes, you must challenge yourself. But in the process, ever ignore your pain. If your knees hurt. Or if you can’t even get out of bed in the morning. That’s your body telling you that you’re overdoing it. You’ve gone past “challenging” and have entered into “damaging.”

Even if "No pain, no gain" means to say we should put ourselves out of comfort zone, too many people use it to justify hurting themselves while exercising.

Trading off a short term fix, for long term challenges

Think of it like a car, which is full of many intricate parts. I can push its performance, but only for so long. After a while, things will start to wear out. That check engine light will turn on.

In our bodies, pain is that “check engine light.” It will turn on when you push your body too much, and if you ignore it, things will only get worse.

The best thing to do would be to pull back. Address what needs to be addressed. And then use your car, and your body well. It will be useful, more efficient, and more long lasting.

The way so many people are training now- they’re driving their bodies to the point of getting wrecked. It’s "Karoshi" in fitness. “Death by overwork-out.”

And the real long term cost shows up when you find that you’re in too much pain to get a good night’s sleep. Or you don’t have the energy to spend time with your friends and family. Or ultimately, you have health and body problems that limit your freedom, and prevent you from doing things.

The Solution: Going back to motivation

One way to recalibrate is to ask yourself a simple question

“What am I working out for anyway?”

Is it a sense of accomplishment?

Is it because I want to be healthier?

Is it because I want to live long?

Do I want to be present for my family and kids?

Whatever it might be, framing your workouts this way can help you find that balance.

It’s a bit cliche, but when you hear

“work to live, and not live to work,”

you can apply the same kind of thinking to working out

We “Workout to live, not live to workout.”

Ask yourself:

Does my exercise routine let me do the things I want to do and live the life I want to live?

If I want to live a healthy, happy life and be present to my friends and family. Then as cool as it might be to run really fast or jump really high, I can remember that it might affect my knees, and hurt my ability to stick to my real goals.

Your life is what you’re trying to be fit for.


Cover photo by Jon Tyson on