News & Insights 10 July 2023

Keeping physically active can increase your pain tolerance!

From strengthening our bones and muscles to improving cardiovascular health, the benefits of physical activity are well-known. But new evidence has emerged suggesting that physical activity may also increase our pain tolerance.

It is thought that physical activity might influence the risk and/or progression of chronic pain by increasing pain tolerance. To investigate this, a recent study published in the journal PLOS ONE asked 10,372 individuals aged between 30 and 87 years about their leisure-time physical activity and used a ‘cold pressor test’ to measure pain tolerance. This involved each participant placing their hand in 3 °C water and the longer they kept their hand in the water, the greater their pain tolerance. The participants repeated the assessments on 2 separate occasions, approximately 8 years apart.

At the first assessment, the higher level of physical activity the participants engaged in, the longer they could resist releasing their hand from the cold water. The most active individuals kept their hand submerged for 16.3s longer than their least active counterparts. Between the 2 assessments, all participants increased their pain tolerance regardless of activity level, which was believed to be a result of ageing. But importantly, active individuals who remained active or increased their activity had a higher pain tolerance compared with those who remained inactive.

Whilst there isn’t an agreed explanation for why this happens, the evidence supporting the positive impact of physical activity on pain tolerance is growing. Some believe it could be due to a generalised reduction in pain sensitivity that happens during physical activity and is maintained for a period of time afterwards (Vaegter & Jones, 2020). Also, people who are more physically active often have better blood flow, lower inflammation and better cardiovascular health, which may result in the ability to endure more pain (Warburton, 2006).

As with all studies, there were limitations to the research. Physical activity was self-reported, which relies on people’s understanding and memory of their physical activity. At follow-up participants were only asked about their activity over the previous 12-months, which means that the dose of physical activity over 7 of the 8-year intervention period was unaccounted for. Finally, the method of measuring pain tolerance may not be applicable to all contexts of pain as using a cold-pressor test may not reflect the experience of pain in day-to-day.

While, this study doesn’t answer all the questions surrounding this topic, it does add to the emerging evidence base that suggests engaging in more physical activity may have the potential to alleviate chronic pain. Whether you prefer to keep busy throughout the day or prefer bouts of physical activity, there isn’t a one-size fits all approach. At KiActiv®, we encourage you to explore what works for you, putting you in control of the movement in your everyday life. Whether you experience chronic pain or you wish to prevent it in the future, KiActiv® can help you to optimise your physical activity, in a way that is personalised to you.

The KiActiv® Team