Exercise helps increase pain tolerance: Study

2023-06-08 18:25:52
Exercise helps increase pain tolerance: Study

Many benefits come from regularly exercising, including stronger muscles, lower risk of disease and improved mental health. But a recent study suggests that exercise may have another unexpected benefit: it might make us more tolerant to pain.

The study, published in the journal PLOS One, found people who regularly exercised had a higher pain tolerance compared with those who hardly exercised.

To conduct their study, the researchers used data from 10,732 participants who’d taken part in the Tromsø study – a large study on health and disease that was conducted in Tromsø, Norway. The participants were aged 30 to 87, and just over half were women.

Every participant was assessed twice, eight years apart. During each assessment, they answered questions about their physical activity levels and took part in a cold pressor test. This is 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.

The researchers found that the more active the participants were, the longer they could keep their hand in the water. In fact, those who were categorised as being very active were able to keep their hand in the water for 115.7 seconds on average compared with 99.4 seconds for the least-active participants. The researchers also found that participants who stayed active or became even more active were able to perform better on average during the second test compared with those who remained inactive.

It’s worth noting, however, that over the eight years between assessments, everyone became less tolerant of pain on average. This change was roughly the same for everyone – whether people were couch potatoes or avid marathoners. But active participants still had higher pain tolerance compared with inactive people, despite this decrease. It’s uncertain why people became less tolerant to pain over time, but it could be because of ageing.

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

The participants were also only asked about their physical activity over the last 12 months, leaving the remaining seven years between assessments unaccounted for in the analyses. This means someone may be classed as sedentary despite having engaged in vigorous physical activity for seven out of the eight years. Such cases may skew the results and lead to a misinterpretation of the outcomes.

Source: The Conversation

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