Many benefits come from regular physical activity, including stronger muscles, lower risk of disease, and better Mental Health. But a recent study suggests that exercise may have another unexpected benefit: it could make us more tolerant of pain.
The study, published in the journal PLOS One, found that people who exercised regularly had a greater pain tolerance compared to those who did little exercise.
To conduct their study, the researchers used data from 10,732 participants who had taken part in the Tromso study – a large health and disease study that was conducted in Tromsø, Norway. Participants ranged in age from 30 to 87 and just over half were women.
Each participant was assessed twice, eight years apart. During each assessment, they answered questions about their level of physical activity and participated in a cold presser test. It’s a common method used by researchers to induce pain in a laboratory environment. Participants place their hand in 3℃ water for as long as they can. The longer they keep their hand in the water, the greater their pain tolerance.
Researchers found that the more active participants were, the longer they could keep their hands in the water. Indeed, those who were classified as very active were able to keep their hand in the water for an average of 115.7 seconds compared to 99.4 seconds for the least active participants. The researchers also found that participants who remained active or became even more active were able to perform better on average on the second test compared to those who remained inactive.
It should be noted, however, that over the eight years between assessments, everyone became less pain tolerant on average. This change was pretty much the same for everyone – whether people were couch potatoes or avid marathon runners. But active participants still had a higher pain tolerance than inactive people, despite this decrease. It’s unclear why people have become less tolerant of pain over time, but it could be due to aging.
However, we must be careful in interpreting the results. Assessing physical activity through self-report is tricky business that participants can be tried to report they are more physically active than they actually are. They may also have difficulty remembering their physical activities, which can lead to both over-reporting and under-reporting.
Participants were also only asked about their physical activity over the past 12 months, leaving the remaining seven years between assessments not taken into account in the analyses. This means that a person can be considered sedentary even if they have engaged in vigorous physical activity for seven out of eight years. Such cases can skew the results and lead to misinterpretation of the results.
Yet this study joins a growing body of research that has shown the benefits of physical activity on pain tolerance.
exercise and pain
Given these findings, it is interesting to speculate how physical activity may affect pain tolerance. While we have some ideas as to why this link exists, we’re still a long way from knowing the full picture.
A possible explanation for this link could be due to some of the physiological changes that occur after exercise – such as exercise-induced “hypoalgesia”. It basically refers to a reduction in pain and tenderness that people report during and after exercise. A good example of this is the runner’s high, when the body releases its own opioids, called endorphins. These hormones bind to the same receptors as opioids, producing a similar analgesic effect.
Still, endorphins are only part of the magic behind the runner’s high. Research suggests the endocannabinoid system has similar effects after exercise. This system is an extensive cellular signaling network, largely composed of endocannabinoids and their receptors. They are neurotransmitters produced by the body that are involved in many processes, including the regulation of sleep, appetite, and mood.
Research also suggests they can help us tolerate pain better. Studies show that exercise can increase levels of endocannabinoidswhich in turn can improve our overall pain tolerance.
But pain is not a purely physiological phenomenon. It is an experience, and as such it is subject to our psychology as well as our physiology.
It could be argued that the exercise comes with some level of pain – from stitches and muscle pain to that burning sensation you get when you try to squeeze in that last rep.
For this reason, exercise has the power to change the way we assess pain. Exposing yourself to these unpleasant experiences during a workout can help build resilience – our ability to function in the face of stressful eventssuch as pain. Physical activity can also strengthen self-efficacy – our belief that we can do certain things despite the pain.
Physical activity too improves our moodwhat makes us more pain resistant. Plus, exercise helps us learn to distract ourselves from pain – like when We are listening to music while running. Regular physical activity can help us overcome fear of pain and movement and allows us to be ready for the experience of pain. Not surprisingly, many of these techniques are used as the basis for pain management techniques.
While there are still many questions that future research will need to answer, this research reminds us how much exercise benefits us, even in ways we might not expect. These results may also add to a growing body of evidence that supports that exercise can help manage chronic pain.