27 Feb 2022

Want to ward off pain during ageing? Exercise harder

From Sunday Morning, 9:37 am on 27 February 2022

Engaging in high levels of physical activities, such as swimming, running or a game of tennis, once a week can help stave off chronic musculoskeletal pain as we age.

That's the key finding from a new study out of the University of Portsmouth that examined the data of nearly 6000 people aged 50 or more over 10 years.

The study is the first to examine the experience of chronic pain alongside gender, BMI, age and wealth over a long time period.

Young athletic woman taking a break from training standing resting, fatigue.

Photo: 123RF/ Lars Zahner

Vigorous activity can have a long-term effect on the development of chronic pain, study lead Dr Nils Niederstrasser told Jim Mora.

Experience of pain in later life would seem to have a high prevalence, he says.

“We have some estimates that suggest numbers as high as 62 percent for those 75 and older and among those between 55 and 75 it can be as high as 50 percent.

“But that doesn't really tell us much about the intensity of the pain that people experience. What is interesting, though, is that the proportion of people reporting pain complaints consistently increases with age.”

Intensity is the key to warding off future pain, he says.

“The intensity that you need to put in is probably what drives the positive effects that we see through things like improving bone mass and muscle function.

“Also, to have effects like stress reductions and better mood, the activity needs to be intense enough to achieve this.”

Data from the longitudinal study demonstrated this, he says

 “We looked at how active people were then, what their BMI was like their finances, their age, their gender and whether they already suffered from pain at that time.

“And then we looked at data 10 years down the line. And that showed us that being overweight or obese, female having existing musculoskeletal pain having no wealth, were found to predisposed individuals to report frequent musculoskeletal pain complaints 10 years later.

“It also showed us that only high levels of physical activity were associated with a reduced risk of reporting pain complaints 10 years later.”

While all exercise was beneficial, gardening and moderate walking was found to have little positive effect on later pain levels, he says.

“What we found was that only vigorous activities so swimming, digging with a spade, jogging, running, cycling, things like tennis were associated with a lower risk of developing pain complaints.

“Moderate activities such as dancing, walking and gardening, didn't have that same protective effect, although they were associated with a lower risk of pain in the present day.”

Although any activity is better than none, once a week vigorous activity was found to be most beneficial, he says.