I once ran a half-marathon with anemia, which means hemoglobin is low and less oxygen is carried to the muscles, among many other health issues. Another time I ran a 10K with a partial tear of an ankle ligament. My personal best of a 140-pound dead lift occurred while having hamstrings tendinitis. And recently, I experienced a complex dentist job without anesthesia.
I certainly don’t advise anyone to endure this kind of physical pain, but my ability to withstand such high levels of discomfort comes from the 20 years I have been exercising without a break.
When we exercise we expect to get stronger, have more energy, increase endurance and stamina, and improve our health. Yet, have you ever thought the same “pain” you feel when squeezing your butt in the last rep while squatting, or when pushing through the last mile, will make you more resistant to physical pain in general —from flu-like symptoms to a torture headache?
It may be that exercise can work as a natural anesthesia to tolerate physical pain. Indeed, in a study published in the monthly journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, physical activity performed by 21 healthy women —from moderate-intensity aerobic exercise for a minimum of 150 min/ week to vigorous-intensity aerobic activity for a minimum of 75 minutes per week— was compared with pain intensity and unpleasantness ratings to noxious thermal stimuli. The findings showed that the most active participants reported significantly lower unpleasantness ratings than the less active peers.
Pick Up the Intensity
Experts advise to get moving no matter what the activity is, as long as you do it regularly. But in the same way you can’t expect to have a toned body only by walking, there are some exercises that will make you tougher at decreasing pain sensitivity than others.
“Cardiovascular exercise is the best for this —anything that uses large muscle groups of the body at the same time for at least 20 to 30 minutes nonstop, such as running, swimming or cycling,” says Dr. JoAnn Dahlkoetter, sports psychology expert and coach, author of You Performing Edge (2012). “By working continuously, the body creates endorphins, which can act as an analgesic and also increase the sense of well-being in the brain. That change in brain chemistry can have a sort of numbing effect as well as a stress-reduction effect, therefore any pain isn’t as pronounced.”
While performing a continuous activity that uses the whole body can make you pain tolerance stronger, how intense the exercise is what ultimately provides the most benefit.
“We found that only time spent in vigorous activity was significantly related to pain sensitivity. Both low and moderate intensity activities did not appear to play a role,” says Laura Ellingson, Ph.D., Research Scientist in the Exercise Psychology Laboratory at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and one of the study’s authors. “Vigorous physical activity may lead to lowered pain sensitivity because this type of exercise is often painful. Reduced sensitivity to pain stimuli may be an adaptation to repeated muscle pain exposure through this higher intensity exercise.”
According to Dahlkoetter, you can expect the pain reduction effect during exercise and one to two hours later, when endorphins are at its highest. “The more continuous, the better,” she says. “That’s why it’s really important for people to exercise once a day.”
Workouts That Work Out
Unfortunately, a body-mind workout like yoga will not make you more resistant to tolerate physical pain. Dahlkoetter points out that “other forms of exercise like yoga could help with pain associated with that particular exercise or yoga position, but you may not feel the increase in endorphins.”
Indeed, some studies show how yoga and Pilates may help to relieve chronic low back pain; nevertheless, this is different from making you less sensitive to the dentist’s pain work or other type of physical pain. Experts say these types of discipline instead may release different neuro-chemicals that slow you down and thus decrease anxiety and stress.
To strength your pain tolerance, you don’t need to push yourself all the way through your exercise routine every time. “For instance, running is hard to do once a day. What I would recommend is running three to fours days a week, and something else on alternate days like swimming or yoga,” says Dahlkoetter.
By most definitions, all exercise is mind-body exercise. And based on the available research, what is important is to begin an exercise program at a low intensity so any physical issues like chronic pain symptoms don’t increase dramatically, but enough for the body to begin to adapt to the increased workload. “This can be done with a careful progression in really any type of exercise,” says Ellingson.
Good and Bad Pain
The takeaway message here is to workout at higher intensity to make you less pain sensitive. However, you need to also understand the difference between “good” pain and “bad” pain. Bad pain is often localized, centered around a joint, and typically involves swelling. Yet, good pain is common when you first begin to increase your physical activity and is a sign that your body is adjusting.
“I think many people who are unfamiliar with exercise and are just beginning to increase their physical activity will also be unfamiliar with “good” muscle pain and may see it as a signal that they should stop,” says Ellingson. But she points out that general muscle pain and soreness is a normal part of adapting to physical activity and could potentially go a long way to help you continue to exercise when you experience soreness. So in this case there are gains from pains.
Marta Montenegro is an exercise physiologist, certified strength and conditioning coach and master trainer, who teaches as an adjunct professor at Florida International University. Marta has developed her own system of exercises used by professional athletes. Her personal website, martamontenegro.com, combines fitness, nutrition and health tips, exercise routines, recipes and the latest news to help you change your life but not your lifestyle. She was the founder of nationally awarded SOBeFiT magazine and the fitness DVD series Montenegro Method.