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Keeping physically active is important for overall health. Hinterhaus Productions/Getty Images
  • New research shows physically active people have higher pain tolerance compared to those who are sedentary.
  • The researchers found that people who are more physically active don’t experience as much chronic pain.
  • Benefits of physical activity include weight management, better mental health, a stronger immune system, and a longer lifespan.

Engaging in physical activity on a regular basis is associated with improved overall health.

According to new research published in the journal PLOS ONE, people who were physically active had higher pain tolerance compared to those who were sedentary. Also, the more active people were, the higher their level of pain tolerance was.

Since previous studies on physical activity and pain tolerance were conducted on a small sample size, researchers from the Anders Årnes University Hospital of North Norway, Tromsø, examined data from 10,732 Norwegian adults for this study.

Participants reported levels of their physical activity and pain tolerance, which were measured with a test that required placing their hands in cold water.

“Pain tolerance is subjective, and the way that it was measured in the study was hand immersion in cold water,” said Dr. Nathan Kadlecek, physical therapist and owner of Kadalyst Wellness and Physical Therapy in Monterey, who was not involved in the study.

“This is really just a proxy to how much pain someone can tolerate. The reasoning behind this is that you are physically active and exercise frequently. Theoretically, you are used to putting your body through very difficult situations and feeling uncomfortable, voluntarily,” he told Medical News Today.

It’s important to note that the more physically fit a person is, the less likely they are to experience pain or injuries through physical activity.

“[I] think what this research is trying to convey is that people who are more physically active don’t have as much chronic pain. And while this is true, it’s probably not due to higher pain tolerance but more so that physical activity in frequent exercise, has systemic metabolic effects that reduce the risk of developing chronic symptoms. It doesn’t eliminate the risk, but it reduces it.”
— Dr. Nathan Kadlecek

Endorphins released through exercise may also play an important role.

“Engaging in physical activity is associated with the release of endorphins, which are natural pain-relieving chemicals in the brain,” said Dr. James Walker, a physician, and contracted medical advisor for online pharmacy and well-check service Welzo, who was also not involved in the study.

In addition, since people who are more physically active tend to have better blood flow, lower inflammation and better heart health, this results in the ability to endure more pain.

“Regular physical activity can also improve cardiovascular health, increase blood flow, and reduce inflammation, which can contribute to an individual’s pain tolerance. It is likely that the combination of these factors contributes to the higher pain tolerance observed in individuals with higher levels of physical activity,” Walker added.

When you don’t move your body on a regular basis, you increase your risk of developing various chronic health conditions such as obesity, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease.

Dr. Kadlecek explained the different benefits of physical activity:

  • Improves cardiovascular health: Regular exercise strengthens the heart and improves circulation, reducing the risk of heart disease.
  • Controls weight: Physical activity helps control weight by burning calories, which can help prevent obesity—a risk factor for many health issues.
  • Enhances mental health: Exercise stimulates various brain chemicals, which may leave you feeling happier, more relaxed, and less anxious. It can also improve sleep and cognitive function.
  • Builds stronger bones and muscles: Weight-bearing and resistance exercises strengthen bones and muscles, reducing the risk of osteoporosis and frailty as we age.
  • Increases lifespan: Regular physical activity is associated with a longer lifespan by reducing the risk of chronic diseases.
  • Boosts immune system: Regular exercise can help boost your immune system and fight off infections and diseases.

The researchers’ method for measuring pain may not be the most accurate.

“Testing pain tolerance by putting your hand in a cold bucket of water is probably not the best proxy for how much pain somebody can tolerate,” said Dr. Kadlecek.

“And, I’m not sure how much real-world applicability this has to everyday life. I know many people who can’t stand even 10 minutes of that exercise but can withstand the pain of working 12-hour days. So pain tolerance really does depend on the task, whether it be physical, or cognitive,” he said.

Also, the data is self-reported, which can skew results.

“The data appears to rely on self-reported levels of physical activity, which can sometimes be subject to bias or inaccuracies,” said Scott McAfee, a physical therapist, who was also not involved in the study.

“For instance, people can overestimate or underestimate their actual levels of physical activity when self-reporting. Secondly, pain tolerance was measured using a cold-water test. This type of test may not reflect the pain experience in daily life or in conditions of chronic pain,” he explained.