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Exercise Linked to Increased Pain Tolerance New Study

Many benefits come from regular exercise, including stronger muscles, lower risk of disease, and improved 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 higher pain tolerance than those who exercised little.

To conduct their study, the researchers used data from 10,732 participants who had taken part in the Troms Study, a large study of health and disease conducted in Troms, Norway. The participants ranged in age from 30 to 87, and just over half were women.

Each participant was evaluated twice, eight years apart. During each assessment, they answered questions about their physical activity levels and took part in a cold blood pressure test. This is a common method used by researchers to induce pain in a laboratory setting. Participants put their hand in 3 water for as long as possible. The longer they keep their hand in the water, the higher their pain tolerance.

The researchers found that the more active the participants were, the longer they were able to keep their hand in the water. In fact, 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 less active participants. The researchers also found that participants who remained active or became even more active were able to perform better on average during the second test than those who remained inactive.

It’s worth noting, however, that in the eight years between assessments, everyone on average became less tolerant of pain. This change was more or less 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 not clear why people have become less tolerant of pain over time, but it could be because of aging.

However, we must be cautious in interpreting the results. Assessing physical activity through self-assessment is tricky business as participants may be tempted to report that they are more physically active than they actually are. They may also have trouble remembering their physical activities, which can lead to both over- and under-reporting.

Participants were also asked only about their physical activity over the past 12 months, leaving the remaining seven years between ratings not factored into the analyses. This means that someone can be classified as sedentary despite having engaged in vigorous physical activity for seven out of eight years. Such cases can skew the results and lead to misinterpretation of the results.

The man is lying on the sofa with a video game controller in hand.
Sedentary people had worse pain tolerance in both tests.
New Africa/Shutterstock

However, this study joins a growing body of research that has shown the benefits of physical activity on pain tolerance.

Exercise and pain

In light of these results, it is interesting to hypothesize how physical activity might affect pain tolerance. While we have some ideas as to why this link exists, we are 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. This essentially refers to a reduction in pain and sensation that people report during and after exercise. A good example of this is the runners high, when the body releases its own opioids, called endorphins. These hormones bind to the same opioid receptors, producing a similar pain-relieving effect.

Yet endorphins are only part of the magic behind the high for runners. Research suggests that the endocannabinoid system has similar effects after exercise. This system is an extensive cellular signaling network, composed largely of endocannabinoids and their receptors. These are neurotransmitters produced by the body that are involved in many processes, including regulating sleep, appetite and mood.

Research also suggests they may help us tolerate pain better. Studies show that exercise can increase endocannabinoid levels, which 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 much as it is to our physiology.

It could be argued that exercise brings with it a certain level of pain from stitches and body aches to that burning sensation you get when you try to squeeze out that last rep.

For this reason, exercise has the power to change how we evaluate pain. Exposing ourselves to these unpleasant experiences during a workout can help build resilience, our ability to function in the face of stressful events, like pain. Physical activity can also build self-efficacy, our belief that we can do certain things despite the pain.

Physical activity also improves our mood, which in turn makes us more resistant to pain. Additionally, exercise helps us learn to distract ourselves from pain, such as when we listen to music while running. Regular physical activity can help us overcome fear of pain and movement and allow us to be prepared for the experience of pain. Not surprisingly, many of these techniques are used as a foundation for pain management techniques.

While there are still many questions that future research will need to answer, this research reminds us how exercise benefits us even in ways we might not expect. These findings may also add to a growing body of evidence that exercise can help manage chronic pain.

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