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To the long list of the benefits of physical activity, researchers have just added one more thing: a greater ability to handle pain.
A recent study published in the journal PLOS One found that regular exercise is an effective way to reduce or prevent chronic pain without the use of medication.
“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, told Fox News Digital in an email.
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 (sedentary, light, moderate or vigorous).
Pain tolerance was measured using the cold pressor test (CPT), which is 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.
In evaluating the results, the researchers found that for both rounds, any activity level was better than being sedentary in terms of pain tolerance.
“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 said.
The higher the total activity levels, the greater the person’s pain tolerance.
“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,” Årnes said.
The results were consistent for those who were already experiencing chronic pain, the researchers were surprised to discover.
“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 said.
Another surprise was that no difference was seen between women and men.
“We expected to see smaller effects for women, but that was not the case here,” the researcher said.
This was an observational study, Årnes pointed out — researchers were looking at averages for groups of the population in general.
Additionally, 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.
This wasn’t the first research to examine the relationship between exercise and pain tolerance.
In a 2017 study led by Southeastern Louisiana University, published in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine, 24 college-age students showed a higher threshold for pain after participating in two sessions of strength training and circuit training.
And in 2020, an Australian study published in the journal BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders evaluated nearly 600 participants who suffered from chronic musculoskeletal pain.
Those who did regular aerobic physical activity, including walking or cycling, experienced higher pain thresholds, researchers from Monash University found.
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 has been suggested to protect against chronic pain.
“You don’t have to perform as a top-tier athlete to enjoy the benefits of it,” he added.
“The most important thing is that you do something — and increasing your physical activity level could do you a lot of good.”
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).
Beyond higher pain tolerance, regular physical activity has many other benefits.
Those include weight management, improved heart health, lower risk of cancer, stronger bones and muscles, greater longevity and increased ability to perform daily functions, per the CDC.