Researchers have added one more convincing reason to get us up and moving: a greater ability to handle pain.
A recent study published in the journal PLOS One found that regular exercise effectively reduces or prevents chronic pain without medication.
Researchers analyzed a sample of 10,732 participants from the Tromsø study, Norway’s largest population study.
The participants completed questionnaires to report their level of physical activity, choosing between sedentary, light, moderate, or vigorous.
Pain tolerance was measured using the cold pressor test (CPT) when people’s hands are immersed in ice water between 32 and 41 degrees Fahrenheit to see how long they can endure it.
The study was repeated twice, seven to eight years apart.
For both rounds of the study, the researchers found that any activity level was better than being sedentary regarding pain tolerance. The higher the total activity levels, the greater the person’s pain tolerance.
“The main takeaway is that engaging in habitual physical activity in your leisure time seems to be connected with your pain tolerance — the more active you are, the higher your tolerance is likely to be,” Anders Pedersen Årnes, the lead author from the University Hospital of North Norway, said.
“Secondly, there were indications that both total amount of physical activity over time, as well as the direction of change in activity level over time, [impacts] how high pain tolerance is,” Årnes continued. “We found large effects for the most active versus the least active participants — close to 60 seconds tolerance on average for the sedentary group versus above 80 seconds tolerance for the most active participants.”
The researchers were surprised to discover that the results were consistent for those who were already experiencing chronic pain.
“Chronic pain did not seem to diminish the effect of physical activity on pain tolerance, which appeared just as strong for those with pain as for those without,” Årnes remarked.
Another surprise was that there was no difference between women and men. “We expected to see smaller effects for women, but that was not the case here,” the researcher contended.
This was an observational study, Årnes pointed out. Researchers were looking at averages for groups of the population in general.
And because the exercise levels were self-reported, there was the potential for some degree of bias or inaccuracy.
“We would not use these results to predict pain tolerance for small, clinical subpopulations,” he said.
While additional research is needed, Årnes said the findings from the recent Norwegian study established that every additional bit of activity could help improve pain tolerance, which they suggest protects against chronic pain.
During 2021, nearly 21% of U.S. adults (51.6 million people) experienced chronic pain, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
“You don’t have to perform as a top-tier athlete to enjoy the benefits of it,” he explains. “The most important thing is that you do something — and increasing your physical activity level could do you a lot of good.”