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When should I stop exercising?

Grant Cooper, MD
Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation
If you develop chest pain, headache, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, or have prolonged difficulty catching your breath while exercising, stop and contact your doctor immediately.

In addition to any heart, lung, or other systemic problems that might preclude your participation in an exercise regimen, there are other reasons why you may need to forgo or modify some exercises, particularly strength training exercises. For example, if you have a shoulder problem, such as impingement syndrome or a rotator cuff tear, you may not be able to do certain chest and shoulder exercises, and may have to forgo any over-the-head strength training until the condition improves. If you have a pinched nerve in your back, certain core strengthening exercises would be contraindicated.

Strength training may cause a burning sensation in the muscles you are exercising. This is normal. However, stop exercising if you experience excessive pain. If you have a known musculoskeletal problem, such as hip labra tear, rotator cuff tendonitis, or discogenic back pain, talk to your doctor and physical therapist before beginning an exercise program to find out which exercises are safe for you. Sometimes, you might only need to modify an existing exercise.
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Outside of having chronic disease or musculoskeletal injury, there are very few reasons why anyone should ever stop exercising. Continued physical activity and exercise has been proven to increase life expectancy, decrease development of chronic disease and increased vitality.  As you age, physical activity intensity can decrease, but should not stop. Ceasing exercise should come when ordered by a physician, such as having a certain chronic disease, or taking certain medications. If you experience pain, have an abnormal physiological response to exercise or have questions about your ability to exercise it is advisable to consult a physician.  

There are quite a few reasons to immediately stop exercising. The first thing to be aware of is anything related to the symptoms of a possible cardiac event. These could include nausea, light headedness, vomiting, dizziness, profuse sweating, chest pain, that could include upper back, radiating left arm or shoulder pain. If you find yourself experiencing these things call your doctor right away. There are other reasons as well; an obvious injury or moderate to severe asymmetrical pain in a limb or joint. What this means is, if you are doing an upper body exercise and your left elbow starts to give you a lot of consistent trouble through a couple of sets it would be a good indication to stop doing that exercise and take a look at your overall program design. Listen to your body and you will be far better off. It generally will let you know if it is in trouble. You don't push through the symptoms listed above or sharp asymmetrical pain.

The goal of any exercise program is to improve your health. Yet if you overdo it, expose yourself to temperature extremes, or ignore important warning signs, you may end up doing more harm than good.

As you exercise, pay attention to your body. If you have any of the following symptoms, slow down or stop exercising right away:
  • Any chest pain (angina) -- including pain, tightness, or heaviness in the chest, neck, jaw, or arms
  • Light-headedness or dizziness
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Extreme fatigue (tiredness)
  • Muscle pain
  • Excessive sweat or cold sweat
  • Vision problems
  • Numbness or tingling in hands or feet
  • Irregular or too-rapid heartbeat
  • Unusual shortness of breath (more than you'd expect for your level of exercise or enough that you cannot carry on a short conversation)
In general there is no good reason to stop exercising. The exception to this is if you have cardiac or respiratory disease that requires physical rehabilitation before you are able to start some exercise regimen. If you hurt your shoulder at the gym, you can always ride a stationary bike or walk. If you hurt your ankle, go for a swim. There are honestly hundreds to thousands of ways to exercise. Pick an activity you are fond of and go do it, walking being the simplest and cheapest to accomplish.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.