Exercise making me feel worse?
February 1, 2016 1:56 PM   Subscribe

It seems like though I exercise regularly, I'm just getting stiffer/weaker, rather than stronger.

Disclaimer: I've recently had a physical and addressed the stiffness/soreness with a doctor, who ruled out arthritis. She recommended a "soft brace" type apparatus for sleeping to keep my ankles in a better sleeping position, but otherwise couldn't find any cause/solution for the increased joint stiffness.

I am by no means a super fit person. Right now I'm doing a Couch to 5k, which I have done in the past successfully through all ten weeks. I stopped running for about a year, so I'm starting over again now. I run outside, but try not to run on cement/sidewalks very often. (Usually asphalt or packed dirt.)

It seems like for the last couple years every time I start a new exercise regimen I just end up feeling sore, stiff, and shitty rather than stronger or healthier in any perceptible way. For instance, every time I run I get extremely stiff/sore in my Achilles tendon area for days and wake up every morning toddling out of bed like a penguin. I did a Cardio Kickboxing class for about 4-5 weeks last fall, and mostly I just felt exhausted and super sore, like every kick/punch that I executed was just a strain on my tendons, even though I tried to keep the movement in my muscles.

I don't stretch before my workout since I read that actually leads to more joint stress and muscle tearing, but I stretch afterward. I used to stretch beforehand and I haven't really noticed a difference between then and now.

I am concerned this is an idiosyncratic problem since for the last few years I've had more soreness in my joints in general, and it's easier for me to crack my knuckles (they're kind of loud!), and I can crack my back and neck easily now, which was never the case before. My knees crack like gangbusters given any provocation. I have a lot more postural soreness when I sit at a desk. I've also put on about 35 pounds in the last couple years (working on losing this now). I have terrible GERD, which is the only other new medical development I've gone through, besides getting an IUD one year ago (which I had removed three months ago). I'm 26. I take Zoloft and Nexium on a daily basis.

I have done some halfhearted weights/bodyweights, thinking that maybe the problem is that with weak muscles, all the strain goes to my joints? Has anyone had success with this approach in particular? Or does anyone just have... high levels of joint stiffness/soreness/cracking that doesn't seem to be arthritis-related, and fuck with your workouts? Am I just getting older/heavier? I didn't work out a lot when I was younger so I don't know if this is weird or normal or what.
posted by easter queen to Health & Fitness (18 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I'm naturally a little inflexible. Going to a yoga class 1-2 times a week has made a difference in my flexibility. I've been doing this for roughly two years; I find attending a class better than making it up on my own. Consider whether something like this would suit you.
posted by radiocontrolled at 2:11 PM on February 1, 2016

I think you've been trying to do too much too fast. You have our permission to find a less intense pace/workout and work your way up gradually.

I tried doing a couch to 5 k program and it was too intense for me. I'm 33, crappy knees, probably 20 pounds heavier than I should be, and have NEVER been a runner before. I signed up with the Running Room to do a Learn To Run program instead and that was much easier, ii started out walking 2 minutes, running 1, and then ended with run 10, walk 1, for 2 sets. Then the 5K program picked up a few intervals before where that one left off. I ran every other day and found a small increment up every week was very do-able, I definitely saw measured progress. I will be going back to running after the winter, for sure.

Getting good running shoes also made a big difference, I had to try out several pairs to find the right fit for me, which included jogging around the store a bit to feel the whole shoe on my foot. Otherwise, shin splints and sore feet/knees definitely happened.

And there are other kinds of workouts that are not so hard on your body. Try yoga and/or pilates, you do what you feel comfortable with, and push yourself a little bit harder when you feel like it. Again, I'm a bit fat and lazy and have an aversion to getting super sore. But I like these, I always feel good afterwards and these are full body workouts.
posted by lizbunny at 2:15 PM on February 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

Starting a new exercise program can be totally exhausting. It takes a while for your body to catch up! Going from basically sedentary to exercising 3x+ a week is a big change. I don't think that you should always push through pain, rah rah rah, but in the absence of actual injury I'd give it a little more time. The adaptation will come and you'll just be regular sore, not this toddling mess. If you need to repeat weeks because you're struggling, do! Slow progress is still progress.

Martial arts are hard on your soft tissue, and can be particularly sore-making if you do everything to full extension, which it's easy to do with momentum and kicking/punching air. You only did it for about a month, and you probably went pretty hard compared to what you were doing before. Again, I think it's *probably* a matter of adaptation.

Also, if you're eating on a caloric deficit to try to lose the weight, your recovery from the exercise is going to be worse. Emphasize nutritious food as much as possible, making sure you're getting your veggies and protein. Carbs aren't the enemy, but you may try to prioritize them before workouts so you get the most bang for your buck.

IANAD, of course.
posted by hollyholly at 2:23 PM on February 1, 2016

also, nth-ing a separate practice for flexibility and mobility; yoga is my pick, too
posted by hollyholly at 2:24 PM on February 1, 2016

I'd ease up a lot, because it sounds as though you are overwhelming your body. Try slowing down the running, for example, and taking walk intervals. Take easy beginner vinyasa yoga classes, too, to improve your flexibility. Consider some aerobic stuff that is easier on your joints like the elliptical and low impact aerobic tapes and bicycling. And yes, weight lifting, if you don't overdo it, is a helpful complement to aerobic exercise.

Also, try taking a look at your diet to make sure you are getting the nutrients you need (usually best from whole foods, not processed ones) and your sleep, to be sure you are getting adequate rest.

Lastly, you'd be amazed how many running aches and pains go away when you stop wearing structured shoes. I highly recommend Skora Form shoes, which work for all exercise activity, look cool, and are very comfortable. Aim for a natural, mid foot or forefoot landing when you run in them.
posted by bearwife at 2:36 PM on February 1, 2016

Make sure you're eating well and staying hydrated. For me, recovery is a real issue if I'm not drinking enough water or I'm not eating enough nutrients.

Also, and maybe this isn't an issue for you, but if I exercise for a bit and then just plop myself back in an office chair or the couch, I do stiffen up and feel really crappy. I've gotta keep moving throughout the day even if I'm a bit sore.

I don't know, all your "symptoms" sound pretty normal to me, a 30-something overweight out-of-shape woman who's trying to make a practice of being active. The bottom line, for me, is that exercise just sucks, but I do it anyway. Eventually (I figure on the order of years, not days or weeks), it'll start to suck a bit less as I retrain my body and mind.
posted by muddgirl at 2:39 PM on February 1, 2016

Oh yeah, another vote for normal. I'm a pretty healthy and active person but if I ramp up the intensity or do something new its like my body is deteriorating for the first couple weeks.
posted by Marinara at 3:04 PM on February 1, 2016

Best answer: I have done some halfhearted weights/bodyweights, thinking that maybe the problem is that with weak muscles, all the strain goes to my joints? Has anyone had success with this approach in particular?

Yes, lifting weights and increasing core strength has made a pretty big difference on my joint problems. My hip used to be about a 6 on wakeup and a 9-10 by the end of the day, and now at its very worst moments it's barely even a 5. My gait overall is better which puts less strain on my terrible spine and I have close to 0 ankle and foot pain anymore.

I also think you're overdoing it. I think you should cut back to no more than 3 days per week, and stick to that for 2-3 months. I think you should spend more time warming up your joints before you do anything workout related. I think you should spend more time stretching after workouts and generally being gentle with yourself if you're in pain the next day.

Finally, exhaustion and muscle cramps/weakness can be serious side effects from Zoloft. Can I safely assume the doctor you saw recently was aware of your medications and ruled out this possibility?
posted by poffin boffin at 3:19 PM on February 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

I've always had joints that snap easily and loudly - to the point that I scared my dentist by popping my jaw and people who run with me have commented on the regular snap, snap, snap of my ankles. But this has never been associated with soreness and doctors have told me its not a problem.
My rule of thumb would be that it takes six weeks to begin coping with new exercise, so a five week class is the perfect length to still feel like crap when it finishes. But that's not based on anything except my experience, and I've been pretty regularly active since I was a kid, so maybe give yourself two months or three months of ramping up time.
posted by the agents of KAOS at 3:26 PM on February 1, 2016

Nthing weightlifting and yoga.

I'm a woman in my early thirties. I used to run a lot, took some time off, and now find running pretty unpleasant (I'm not sure if it's the jarring or getting out of breath or what).

What did help was two things: weightlifting and yoga.

I did Starting Strength seriously for maybe 6-8 months with my husband and felt a lot better in general. (Plus there's something just cool and empowering about thinking, "Ha, a few months ago it was hard to squat with the bar and now that's my super easy warmup before I lift 125 lbs" or whatever). The problem with a program like that is that if you get lazy for a few weeks, coming back is not that fun for the first couple of days (I get some serious DOMS if I go back to lifting after a break). Obviously, the solution is *never stop* for weeks at a time but I haven't actually accomplished that yet. My baseline strength, however, is still a lot higher than it was before I did the program, and I'm much better at lifting with proper technique even when carrying groceries or lifting boxes, etc., so all of that is good.

I started yoga about six months ago and really, really love it. I was pretty anti-yoga for awhile - first, during college, before I ever tried it, I thought "Yoga is for wimps!" (also, I was apparently a cocky whippersnapper), and then, when I tried it after college, I completely about-faced and thought "Yoga is too hard!" Turns out it's neither for wimps nor too hard if you do it right and mindfully.

I haven't really had joint problems in the past, but I have had a lot of fatigue (especially in the last few months) and quite a lot of muscle pain, especially in my neck and shoulders. Yoga has gotten me from needing massage therapy every two weeks (and barely being able to make it to the two-week mark, sometimes needing muscle relaxants, etc.) to not needing a massage in the past three months. I know people talk about yoga being life-changing, and it's not like I'm a different person now. I'm just a person in less pain now, and that's pretty sweet.

And for me, I can get myself to do yoga probably at least 5 times a week, if not more. Running - maybe twice a week? Maybe? So I figure that even though it's gentler, it's better in the long run.

I completely love the free YouTube videos from Yoga with Adriene, partly because I can't get myself to a yoga class on time about half the time when I try, and partly because I work from home and therefore don't have to go anywhere to exercise. She's great about catering to all levels - she tells you modifications you can do to make it easier, and modifications to make it harder if (when, eventually!) you're feeling bored.

But yeah, if exercising isn't working for you, it's probably not you, and it's definitely not that you're not hard-core enough or anything. You might just do better with a different type. Workouts went from "awful/avoid as long as possible" costs to "yay/relatively fun break from work" just by finding something I liked doing and that works well for me right now.
posted by bananacabana at 3:48 PM on February 1, 2016 [6 favorites]

Other people covered what I was going to say, but I like using Bodbot because they give very tailored, focused exercises at many different activity and interest levels. It's a great web and mobile app that at a level of customization that I don't see in other fitness apps, because they all seem to be scaled for those who already are on the 'light exercise' level of fitness. I think it would be more effective to scale down within your limits, and find a sustainable routine that would not cause you so much pain in the present.
posted by yueliang at 4:18 PM on February 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

I think that's pretty normal for the first two to three months of a new exercise program. If you still feel that way six months in, while doing the same exercises regularly, that's a problem.
posted by lollusc at 4:49 PM on February 1, 2016

She recommended a "soft brace" type apparatus for sleeping to keep my ankles in a better sleeping position, but otherwise couldn't find any cause/solution for the increased joint stiffness

Why do you need a soft brace to keep stiff ankles in position? Sometimes people wear special boots while sleeping, with plantar fasciitis, to stretch out the fascia, but I've not heard of this for Achilles problems (which of course doesn't mean that much, as I'm definitely NAD, but I have had most things). Do your ankles flop around? Are you very flexible in some joints but stiff in others?

Anyway, my thought is, stay away from any kind of plyo or heavy impact cardio (running, jumping, etc). Go for low impact activities instead, and switch them up to avoid repetitive strain, and/or do something with variety built into it (like [low-impact] dance or tai chi - those two are good because they help with proprioception, coordination, balance, etc., all of which is going to help a sedentary body wake up and settle itself).

Would do strength, but would introduce reps and load slowly - more slowly than an off-the-shelf program would have you do it. Start with 2 x 8-15 reps and see how your recovery is. (For recovery - go for gentle walking or swimming. Aim is just to get blood moving through the muscles so they can heal, not to do a workout.)

If you're not sure which muscles are firing when, and you think your alignment might be off, e.g. feel a little off-kilter when doing strength stuff, also focus on very gently activating stabilizers (the short muscles that help keep bones in place, not your quads/biceps etc.) with isometric exercises, maybe pilates.

Probably the best thing would be to see a physiotherapist to check out your biomechanics, in case they need addressing. The PT can set you up with a tailored program and demonstrate good form for everything. (Including e.g. how to properly set up a stationary bike for your proportions, how to use a rowing machine properly, etc.) You could just go once and maybe check in again a couple of months. I think if your body hurts when you move, it's telling you stuff worth listening to.
posted by cotton dress sock at 5:46 PM on February 1, 2016

Nthing that you need to build up some strength and flexibility before you start seriously training to run, which puts a lot of stress on your joints and tendons. Once you have more strength, your joints will be more stable, and when you are more flexible you will be able to handle your runs.

Yoga is great, but I find that pilates, especially a studio that has machines (not just the mat classes) can really pinpoint the muscle and tendon groups you need to work on. It's a great addition to a traditional strength program. In either case, please go to a professional as many exercises in yoga and even strength training are easy to misinterpret or do incorrectly if you are watching a video, which can lead to further strain, or at least be ineffective. I did a one-on-one pilates program for several months, and it helped with my knee and hip issues immensely. Tell the instructor the problems you are having and they will design a workout tailored to your needs.

Good luck, take it slow, and don't give up :)
posted by ananci at 5:54 PM on February 1, 2016

How much protein are you eating? When you work your muscles, you need to feed them. I'd recommend a protein shake with whey protein (or soy/hemp/rice/etc.). From what I've read it's best to consume protein within an hour of working out. After making a protein shake my post-workout snack, I don't get sore muscles and I don't feel completely worn out for the rest of the day.
posted by carrioncomfort at 5:59 AM on February 2, 2016

I'll N'th that I think you're overdoing it. Yes, c25k is in theory a slow ramp up, but if you're starting from a position of lower strength you might need still a slower ramp up.

If you can/do follow up, you mention that you're looking to lose some of the semi-recent weight gain. Have you also tried losing weight the other times that you've also ramped up your activity? It's recommended that you *not* try to lose weight when you start a new activity because you want to encourage your body to put on muscle / build up bone strength (which unfortunatley requires some tear down of bones in a 3-4 month process) / strengthen ligaments and tendons. If you try to lose weight every time you pick up an activity as a kind of "health kick" you're just hampering your recovery process.

I'd recommend not half-assing some strength work, while making sure you're eating well. A sedentary person should be getting 0.8g per kg of body weight (or 0.36 per pound). If you're doing strength work, 1.2-1.6g/kg is probably a reasonable target (0.55 - 0.73 g per pound). For someone without kidney problems, consuming 1.4-1.9g/kg of protein is considered safe. Cites for protein intake: jissn.com todaysdietitian.com. Cite for protein safety: nutritionandmetabolism.com.

Also, as I'm currently recovering from a suspected stress fracture, I'll say to look at your calcium intake while remembering that most soda (the phosphoric acid) and caffeine are bad for your bones.

If you have the insurance for it, I'd recommend seeing a physio therapist - they should be able to look for particular weaknesses and prescribe treatment to most effectively help that. Even if you don't, a one-off visit for a physio for some exercise recommendations will likely be under $100. Consider a physio who has a sports background.
posted by nobeagle at 6:36 AM on February 2, 2016

Absolutely go and see a physiotherapist. I had the same problems you're describing, but they got worse and worse over a number of years until my body basically broke down all at once. It turned out I had a number of hypermobile joints that were causing serious biomechanical problems, and the more I tried to exercise the worse I was making them. A physio can at determine if anything is likely to turn into a long term problem and let you know if you're on the right track with the exercise you're doing.
posted by imaginary_mary at 7:17 AM on February 2, 2016 [2 favorites]

While it could be something unusual with a specific medical solution, I think it's also likely this could be completely normal.

Starting up new activities DEFINITELY puts stress on your joints / tendons / non-muscular areas, and over time those get stronger too. This is why people who run marathons tend to hurt themselves -- they have the muscular and aerobic capacity to run long distances from cross-training, but their joints and bones take longer to adapt. Unless you're an extreme outlier in weight or some other area, you're not at risk of that by starting a normal level of exercise like C25K.

Truth is, the standard American lifestyle puts zero stress on any parts of our bodies. You're combating that, it's going to make you stronger, and that's great! Part of being an athlete (or even just an active person) is developing a sense of what's a normal amount of pain and what's "see a doctor" pain.

I'd bet with 80% confidence that the stiffness and pain you're experiencing in recent years is a result of getting older, the years of desk-sitting taking their toll on your spine and hip flexors, and maybe the added weight. You can totally reverse all that with exercise though!

Try cycling or swimming 2-3x a week to improve aerobic capacity and get some muscular development. Yoga 1x a week will help with the soreness from desk-sitting and develop body awareness that'll be helpful in any sport. After you've been doing that for 4-6 months, I think you'd feel a lot better running! You don't have to start with those specific activities though, I'm just recommending the lowest-impact way of getting yourself started since you mentioned joint pain. However, the best exercise is the one you find the most fun!
posted by hyperion at 5:59 AM on February 4, 2016

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