Haven't Got Time for the Pain

Don’t let chronic pain mess with your ability to achieve your dreams. If you move more, you'll hurt less.

Photograph by © Getty Images

Whether it's caused by a bad back, an injured knee, or an illness like fibromyalgia, constant pain can make anyone feel discouraged. That attitude, in turn, can get in the way of making a satisfying life change.

If you experience pain, you may find it hard to motivate yourself to exercise. But before you box up your workout wear, take a look at some new research showing that exercising is worth all the effort, especially for those in midlife. While regular workouts may not reduce pain, they do significantly increase our ability to tolerate it. A study from the University of New South Wales in Australia shows that regular exercise alters the way we experience pain, and that the longer people work out, the greater our pain tolerance grows.

Experts have known for some time that aerobic workouts—from a brisk walk to an intense Spin class—stimulate the production of our body's natural opiates, including endorphins, reducing pain during the exercise. That benefit lingers for up to a half hour after you climb off the bike. Researchers, led by exercise physiologist Matthew Jones, wanted to see how regular workouts changed pain sensitivity. So a group of healthy non-exercisers were divided into two groups; half were enrolled in a six-week exercise program, and half were not. Their reaction to painful probes in their arm were measured before and after the training period.

The results were impressive: The exercise group increased their aerobic fitness and their pain tolerance. The subjects who increased their fitness levels the most also gained the most in pain tolerance. And while the fitness program was intense, it wasn't excruciating—subjects cycled at 75% of their max heart rate for 30 minutes three times a week.

The study was done on young college students. But Jones tells Life Reimagined he thinks the effects would persist, perhaps by a smaller degree, in older adults. "Because we hypothesize that the change mediating the increase in pain tolerance in our sample is largely psychological, it is likely the same could occur in older adults, despite differences in their physiology compared to younger adults."

Still, he cautions, it's important to pay attention to pain, and not tough it out when some body part really hurts. "People with a very high pain tolerance need to be wary. While some pain and discomfort during exercise is normal, particularly for higher intensity exercise, if you are constantly exposing your body to these high stresses it can do more bad than good."

If you find yourself sorer than you'd like to be after workouts, he suggests making sure you're taking adequate rest days, and that you consider adding in lower-impact routines, including pool-based exercises.

No matter what, though, Jones recommends following the cardinal rule of exercise: Find something you love to do. "In almost all cases, the primary determinant of exercise program success is adherence. If you find a type of exercise that you like and can keep doing, you are more likely to see the benefits."

Tags: fitness