It’s obvious when talking to someone who’s an elite athlete as compared to someone who can barely run a mile, that there’s a difference in mindset and basic pain threshold. Up until recently, most people assumed this was a genetic trait; and it may still be in slight. But scientists now believe there might be something more revealing about the athlete’s ability to cope with pain.
In a recent study published in the journal Pain, scientists found that most athletes’ high pain tolerance while exercising may also help them deal with pain when they’re not exercising.
The study, which took place at the University of Heidelberg in Germany, found that athletes can tolerate more pain than their non-athletic friends. And this is because regular physical activity can alter the way a person – marathoner and couch potato alike – can perceive and tolerate pain.
To conduct the study, researchers analyzed 15 separate studies which compared the pain thresholds of very active and non-active individuals. What they found was athletes – especially elite level, endurance athletes – consistently seemed more capable of dealing with pain as compared to non-athletes.
This doesn’t mean athletes are superhuman, as researchers found they don’t necessarily have a higher pain threshold than other people. But rather, they recognize pain the same way as non-athletes but can just handle more of it for longer periods of time.
A broader takeaway, according to researchers, is that exercise may be able to help people with chronic pain learn how to better deal with it.
Providing further insight, researchers wrote, “Athletes are frequently exposed to unpleasant sensory experiences during their daily physical efforts, and high physical and psychological resistances must be overcome during competitions or very exhausting activities. However, athletes are forced to develop pain-coping skills because of their systematic exposure to brief periods of intense pain.”
While this convincing evidence can’t force anyone to change their habits, researchers are hoping that non-athletes will learn a thing or two from athletes and begin using exercise as a practice to grow their pain-tolerating abilities. Researchers stated that more research is still needed in the area of physical activity and pain tolerance before they can make any definite claims. But based off of findings from this particular study, there seems to be a clear connection between the two.