Study Shows Exercise Increases Pain Tolerance. What It Means If You Have Chronic Pain

December 11, 2020

Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional. As with any health issues, consult a licensed medical professional if you are experiencing chronic pain.

I have chronic pain. (Chronic is defined as persisting 3 months or longer). My low back, right-sided piriformis muscle and right hip give me frequent trouble. The onset of these injuries occurred when I was cleaning houses in college, as I was lugging around a 40+ pound duffle bag full of cleaning supplies over my right shoulder. Since then, I have learned to mitigate my pain using holistic methods. Initially I underwent dry needling and physical therapy exercises, which alleviated my sciatica pain resulting from my piriformis muscle being so tight that it hit my sciatic nerve. But after some sciatica pain-free months, I felt I had reached maximum medical improvement with dry needling. Although I was free from sciatica pain, I did, and still do, experience pain.

So I came to rely on heating pads and yoga, and that has worked for me. Because if I neglect to step onto my mat, even for one day, I know that I will experience increased pain. (Pigeon pose, anyone)? I am proud to be able to say that I am not on any medications, pain killers or otherwise, and I would personally like to keep it that way.

But lately I’ve been wondering, what else can I do? I’m constantly looking for ways to be the best version of myself I can be, and honestly, your 20s is too young to develop chronic pain, right?! To add insult to injury, no pun intended, I’ve got a nasty case of left-sided runner’s knee. At its onset a few weeks ago, I thought to myself “This is because my left quad is weak.” A quick internet search indicates that while there may be other factors, I’m likely not wrong.

So what can I do to further alleviate my pain? It seems, somewhat counter-intuitively, aerobic exercise may be the key. Research indicates that exercise may alter how individuals experience pain.

In this study, researchers assessed pain thresholds in 24 participants before either 6 weeks of aerobic exercise or 6 weeks of regular physical activity. At the end of the 6 weeks, participants who participated in the aerobic exercise  group had an increased tolerance to pain.

So this has me thinking, I should just exercise more, right? Perhaps then I’ll “experience” pain differently? The research indicates there is certainly some validity to that. However, common sense reminds me that it isn’t that simple. Because in the case of my new injury, runner’s knee, running more would likely just exacerbate my existing condition. And while I haven’t given up running, I’m very mindful of how I’m feeling and what my body is telling me.

But that doesn’t mean there is no hope! This research provides insight into ways people with chronic pain can productively reduce pain and remain active. For example, consider:

Walking more

Walking is an aerobic activity! Full disclosure, I already walk a lot because of my dog Nitro. Plus, I just feel better when I’m moving. On a normal day, I average 10,000-12,000 steps. Now that I’m making a conscious effort, I get 13,000-16,000 steps a day. If that is unrealistic for you, honor your body! Any increase in aerobic activity (sustained over a period of time like in the study) will likely produce the desirable increase in pain tolerance.


If you live in an area where the weather permits, consider biking instead of driving! Its better for the environment than driving a car and just think of all the exercise you can get during your commute to and from work. Er, well, before the year of work-from-home consumed us all. If you’re working from home like many of us, maybe bike to the grocery store or simply for leisure. Whatever it takes to get it in.

Incorporate HIIT

The research I refer to above specifically looks at how aerobic exercise impacts pain thresholds. And technically, HIIT isn’t aerobic. It is anaerobic. But further research, like this study, demonstrates that anaerobic exercise can reduce chronic pain levels as well!

It does seem unexpected that a solution to pain is to keep moving. Shouldn’t we just stay in bed and cuddle with cats if our bodies hurt? And it only gets trickier as the weather cools and COVID-19 continues to wreak havoc, but physical activity- aerobic or anaerobic- can help people with chronic pain. I’m personally making it my new year’s resolution to stay active and gain muscle. Happy training dumplings.

Also by R. Coker: Are OOFOS Orthopedic Sandals Worth The Price? A Runner Investigates

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Photo: Bruce Mars via Unsplash


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