Physical activity is related to pain sensitivity in healthy women

Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2012 Jul;44(7):1401-6. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0b013e318248f648.


There are many benefits associated with meeting current physical activity recommendations. At present, it is unknown whether a reduced sensitivity to pain is included among these benefits.

Purpose: The study's purpose was to assess the relationship between pain sensitivity and physical activity and sedentary behaviors in a sample of healthy women.

Methods: Self-reported and accelerometer measures of physical activity and sedentary behavior were collected and compared with pain intensity and unpleasantness ratings to noxious thermal stimuli in a sample of 21 healthy women (age = 30.0 ± 5.8 yr). On the basis of accelerometer data, participants were classified into two groups: meets recommendations (n = 12) and insufficiently active (n = 9). Independent-samples t-tests were conducted to compare pain ratings and physical activity behaviors between groups, and correlation coefficients (Spearman ρ) were calculated between average minutes per day spent in moderate, vigorous, and sedentary behaviors, and average intensity and unpleasantness ratings.

Results: Participants meeting physical activity recommendations had significantly lower unpleasantness ratings than their insufficiently active peers. Correlational analyses demonstrated a significant relationship between minutes spent in vigorous physical activity and both pain intensity and pain unpleasantness ratings. Relationships were not significant for moderate activity or sedentary behavior.

Conclusions: These results provide preliminary evidence that meeting current physical activity recommendations may be beneficial for pain in women. Moreover, participation in vigorous activity seems to account for the decreased pain sensitivity. In our sample, sedentary behavior did not seem to have a deleterious effect on pain. Results from this study have many potential applications including aiding our understanding of why exercise functions as a treatment for those with chronic pain conditions and providing a rationale for including physical activity assessment in pain research.

MeSH terms

  • Actigraphy
  • Adult
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Motor Activity / physiology*
  • Pain Measurement / methods
  • Pain Threshold / physiology*
  • Physical Exertion / physiology
  • Sedentary Behavior
  • Self Report
  • Wisconsin
  • Young Adult