According to a study out of Oxford University, people who exercise together increase their pain threshold and physical endurance by a huge margin.
If you’re debating between splurging on a home gym versus joining the Fitness Club, some new research may sway your decision. According to a study out of Oxford University, people who exercise together increase their pain threshold by a huge margin. In fact, those who work out in a team have twice the pain tolerance as those who work out alone, meaning they can exercise longer and harder.
If tolerating increased pain isn’t exactly your dream goal, you might be interested to know that the side benefit of raising the pain threshold is that you simultaneously raise your level of happiness. That’s because pain triggers the release of endorphins, also known as endogenous opioid polypeptides (opioid being the illuminating word here), and endorphins act on the brain much like morphine, numbing pain and enhancing mood. After pain triggers the endorphins, they interact with opiate receptors, preventing nerve cells from releasing additional pain signals.
Somehow, having others at your side as you exercise increases the output of endorphins. The researchers aren’t exactly sure how or why this happens, but they are reasonably sure it does occur. According to study director Emma Cohen, “The results suggest that endorphin release is significantly greater in group training than in individual training even when power output, or physical exertion, remains constant. The exact features of group activity that generate this effect are unknown, but this study contributes to a growing body of evidence suggesting that synchronized, coordinated physical activity may be responsible.”
To test the theory, the researchers pulled subjects from a rowing team and had them row alone on a gym machine. Then, the subjects rowed simultaneously with other subjects, simulating the experience of working with the team in the water. After each exercise, the researchers attached blood pressure cuffs to the subjects and pumped the cuffs up until the subjects “cried uncle.” The subjects tolerated at least twice as much pressure after working out with the group as when they exercised alone, and the researchers surmise that endorphins are the reason.
Possible factors for the group effect include the possibility that synchronous movement triggers an endorphin effect, or that reaching team goals triggers more of an associated “rush” even than reaching individual goals. Those are the possibilities put forth by the researchers, but those who engage in alternative healing practices might be equally inclined to suspect that energy actually transfers from one person to another simply from being in proximity. If you’ve ever engaged in endurance sport and pushed to the limit, you know that being physically close to others does somehow enhance your own energy level. It’s as if the other person’s strength spills over to you. This is the principle that some healers use to transfer curative energy to patients through modalities such as Reiki, some forms of massage, quantum healing, and so on.
In any event, the downside of the endorphin effect is that it can drive you to push a bit too hard, beyond your body’s limits. If you don’t feel the pain, you may keep jogging or biking or dancing to the beat and then injure yourself. This can happen during solitary exercise, too, but when exercising with a group, the risk becomes more pronounced. That may be why so many marathon runners, for instance, don’t injure themselves until race day, when the energy of the crowd and all the other runners carries them beyond the capacity of their legs, or why sports stars often get injured during games rather than when practicing alone.
On the plus side, if you want to increase your physical capacity, this research indicates that training with a buddy or taking group classes is the way to go. Plus, having an exercise pal or two increases the likelihood that you’ll stick to your regimen, and it makes the experience more fun. If you have no buddies or none willing to get off the couch, you can search for exercise partners on several websites. On the other hand, you can also trigger the endorphin effect by eating chili peppers, having acupuncture or a massage, or even by meditating. It may be that these things alone won’t help you take minutes off your race time, but they’ll sure make you feel good and increase your overall well-being.
Then again, if all else fails, you can just try cursing a blue streak during exercise. New studies indicate that swearing increases both resistance to pain and physical endurance. (I can’t wait until competitive parents learn that this technique can give their sweet, darling Little Leaguers a leg up on the competition.)