To Prevent Pain as You Age, Give Your Exercise Sessions a Boost

New research suggests you may need more intensity at a longer duration than previously thought.

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  • When it comes to warding off the type of bone, joint, and muscle pain that often comes with aging, a new study in the journal PLOS ONE suggests exercising more intensely for longer durations.
  • Many older people reduce exercise because they think it will lead to more pain, but the opposite is true. Working out is a preventative strategy.

    There is plenty of research focusing on the absolute minimum amount of exercise needed to see benefits—for example, one recent study looked at the effects of only three seconds of strength training. But when it comes to warding off the type of bone, joint, and muscle pain that often comes with aging, a new study in the journal PLOS ONE suggests going in the opposite direction, toward longer duration and more intensity.

    Researchers looked at just over 5,800 people over age 50 who were part of a large, long-term study on aging in England. Participants provided information on their physical activity levels as well as whether they were bothered by any type of chronic pain over a 10-year period, with about half reporting this type of issue in that timeframe.

    Only high levels of physical activity were shown to be protective against musculoskeletal pain compared to a sedentary lifestyle, according to lead author Nils Georg Niederstrasser, Ph.D., senior lecturer in the department of psychology at University of Portsmouth in the U.K.

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    “It’s well known that pain tends to be more common as we age, but the solution has proved elusive,” he told Runner’s World. “It’s important to look at ways to lower this risk since chronic pain can lead to lower quality of life and poor wellbeing.”

    Although all movement is helpful, those in the study who reported more moderate exercise —such as walking, dancing, stretching, and gardening—didn’t have the significant pain prevention levels seen among those who regularly did more vigorous activity like running, swimming, and playing tennis. Those who saw the least benefit were participants who only reported mild activity like housework.

    “Of course any activity helps people stay well and feel better if you’re comparing that not exercising at all. But when it comes to development of chronic pain, mild exercise doesn’t appear to have a long-term effect,” said Niederstrasser. “Not only does activity need to be vigorous, but you need to do it at least once a week.”



    That may be particularly true for women, he added. In the study, women tended to have a greater risk for pain issues as they age, possibly due to bigger hormonal changes and increased pain sensitivity and intensity, Niederstrasser said. But the long-term effects of vigorous exercise applied to everyone.

    “Physical activity can improve bone mass and muscle function, as well as reduce stress and improve mood,” he added. “Many older people reduce exercise because they think it will lead to more pain, but the opposite is true. It’s a preventative strategy.”

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