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Pain Gain

Hi, here, a very short paper I wrote on the topic of pain for one of my courses.
Enjoy the video links!

September 15, 2010


"'No pain, no gain' is an American modern mini-narrative: it compresses the story of a protagonist who understands that the road to achievement runs only through hardship."[1]

Still far from the extreme of the Geisha's painful beauty rituals of footbinding, the practice of strenuous fitness in search of wellness and beauty remains full of pain. Many people think if they don’t feel pain, they’re not having a quality workout and they will not achieve their desired results. Phrases such as "feel the burn!" and "no pain, no gain!" have become commonplace in fitness culture. Valuing pain, sacrifice and self-denial have become culturally accepted. In this paper I will note the American 1980s aerobics scene and the propagation and subsequent withdrawal of the phrase "no pain, no gain".

The phrase is in fact a very old one, implying that the road to achievement necessarily contains hardships. "There is an allusion to ``no pain, no gain" in a 1650s Robert Herrick poem: ``If little labor, little are our gains, man's fortunes are according to his pains."[2] The same point was later made by Benjamin Franklin in 1733 in his Poor Richard's Almanac: ``There are no gains without pains"."[3]

No pain, no gain (or "No gain without pain") is now popularly remembered as an exercise motto that came into prominence around 1982 when actress Jane Fonda began to produce aerobics workout videos.

In 1971, Jackie Sorenson's "Jazzercise" studio opened in New Jersey and others including Judy Sheppard Misset quickly followed suit. By the 1980s, a major fitness wave obsessed with beauty, sex appeal and of course, also health, hit America. In this time, after the revolutionary '60s and '70s had transitioned into the "Me Generation", personal fitness industries of diet products, gyms and innovative exercise machines boomed.

The sexy, young and free-spirited body images presented by shining commercial fitness stars like Jane Fonda and "boy next door" Richard Simmons were immediately embraced by popular culture. For example, in pop-music star Olivia Newton-John's video for her 1981 hit single "Physical", the singer, an equally sexy, near double of Fonda, transforms fat men into hardbodies through strenuous exercise. Who wouldn't mind suffering a bit to make Olivia or Jane happy, or better yet, to be like them?

Being fit went beyond just feeling good (and looking strong and young). It became sex-appeal and everyone wanted it. The epitome of this within the fitness movement came with the popular "Aerobicise" videos where fit and sexy models were filmed at close camera angle, performing highly erotic exercise movements, some of which were in fact dangerous for the body.

"A 1983 Reader's Digest/Gallup poll showed that 47 percent of Americans exercised daily, compared to only 24 percent twenty years earlier. Home exercise equipment became very popular, with sales increasing from 30 to 65 percent a year between 1980 and 1986 on such items as rowing machines, skiing machines, and stationary bikes -- not to mention Gravity Inversion Books, an invention by orthopedist Robert M. Martin which allowed people to hang upside down from bars." [4]

Like numerous other companies, "In addition to opening nine physical fitness facilities, Xerox Corporation established its $3.5 million Fitness/Recreation Center, a private village on 2,300 acres in Leesburg, Virginia devoted to health management for its 56,000 employees." [4]

While Jane Fonda's intention was to motivate people to push past their fatigue and into the realm of aches to achieve fitness results, many people in the fitness and bodybuilding scenes took the call literally and worked towards pain, muscle tears and hardening - being hardcore.

Beyond the historic, global consciousness, going back to ancient Greek and Roman ideologies about the body, this modern image about what consisted of a beautiful, desirable body had become impossible to ignore. But what should happen to those people for whom attaining this perfect sexy body was a very difficult or impossible task?

Luckily some relief eventually arrived. Though the line between beneficially pushing yourself and having some aches and having actual pain is often blurry, the approach of believing that pain is necessary to reach fitness goals has been discredited. Scientific studies began to show the dangers of "high impact" activity and extreme diets. In addition, publicized events such as the heart-attack-while-running death of jogging book author James Fixx led many people towards moderation. Around the mid-eighties, Jane Fonda too finally abandoned her "no pain no gain" motto. In 2006, the still very "fit and beautiful" Fonda underwent a hip replacement and now in 2010, at age 71 still looking like a fit 40 year old, she has had a knee replacement.

In 2010, "extremefitnessresults" blogger Phil comments on the difference between a normal ache and a damaging, maybe tearing pain; "One comes from pushing your limits sensibly, the other comes from pride and stubbornness, where you push yourself past all the red flags. … stop before you hurt yourself! [5]

As the cultural sphere in 2010 is concerned to a different degree with fitness as in the 1980s, I will sum up this paper with a comment from the WiseGeek blog :
The mantra of "no pain no gain" often motivates people to work through difficult situations or keep their focus on a higher purpose. Not all gains necessarily require pains, but few things in life are ever attained through disinterest or passivity. [6]


1/ Morris, David B. (March 28, 2005). Belief and Narrative, The Scientist 19 (Sup. 1).

2/ Herrick, Robert; Alfred Pollardi, ed. (1898). The Hesperides & Noble Numbers: Vol. 1 and 2. London: Lawrence & Bullen. Vol. 2, 66 & 320.

3/ Franklin, Benjamin (1758). The Way to Wealth

4/ Manning, Jason (2000) Jane Fonda Works Out, from the series :The Eighties Club The Politics and Pop Culture of the 1980s


6/ Pollick, Michael (2003-2010) What does "No Pain No Gain" Mean?

7/ The American College of Foot & Ankle Orthopedics & Medicine (2002) No Pain, No Gain

8/ O'Brien, Hyon (12-12-2008) No Pain, No Gain, The Korea Times


2005, Kyd Campbell, Fonda, single channel video from found footage
Duration: 1min. 22sec.

1981, Aerobicise - Group warmup, video captured from original Laserdisk

1982, Jane Fonda's Workout - Beginners 1

1982, Jane Sheppard MIsset & Friends, Jazzercise : Move your Boogie Body

1981, Olivia Newton-John, Physical, original music video

2010, Physical, parody version by Colorado State University Students


Olivia Newton John Lets Get Physical
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