Pulling together increases your pain threshold

September 30, 2009 at 7:21 am 4 comments

PhysOrg.com reports on “a study of Oxford rowers [that] shows members of a team who exercise together are able to tolerate twice as much pain as when they train on their own.”

In the study, published in the Royal Society journal Biology Letters, researchers from the University of Oxford’s Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology found the pain threshold of 12 rowers from the Oxford Boat Race squad was greater after group training than after individual training.

Each of the 12 rowers participated in four separate tests. They were asked to row continuously for 45 minutes in a virtual boat in the gym (as in normal training), in an exercise carried out in two teams of six and then in a separate session as individuals, unobserved by other team members. After each of the sessions, the researchers measured their pain threshold by how long they could stand an inflated blood pressure cuff on the arm.

The study found there was a significant increase in the rowers’ pain threshold following exercise in both individual and group sessions (a well established response to exercise of any kind). However, after the group training there was a significantly larger increase as compared with training carried out individually.

Since close synchrony is the key to successful competition-class racing, these results suggest that doing a synchronised activity as a group increases the endorphin rush that we get from physical exertion. The study says that since endorphins help to create a sense of bonhomie and positive effect, this effect may underlie the experience of warmth and belonging that we have when we do activities like dancing, sports, religious rituals and other forms of communal exercise together.

Professor Robin Dunbar, Head of the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology at Oxford University, said: ‘Previous research suggests that synchronised physical activity such as laughter, music and many religious activities makes people happier and is part of the bonding process. We also know that physical exercise creates a natural high through the release of endorphins. What this study shows us is that synchrony alone seems to ramp up the production of endorphins so as to heighten the effect when we do these activities in groups.’

The entire article, “Rowers’ high: Behavioral synchrony is correlated with elevated pain thresholds,” by Emma E. A. Cohen, Robin Ejsmond-Frey, Nicola Knight, and R.I.M. Dunbar, is available online.


Entry filed under: play, think. Tags: , , , .

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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. jleeger  |  September 30, 2009 at 7:13 pm

    Hey JR,

    Great post, as usual! This explains a lot, and provides further support for the idea of pursuing a “community” in your training regimen…

    Thanks for posting it!


  • 2. Community…in training, and out « The L.I.F.T. Weblog  |  September 30, 2009 at 7:23 pm

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  • 4. Clynton  |  November 27, 2009 at 4:33 am

    Thanks for reporting this. I think this is good news, being able to tolerate more pain. :) One thing I like about running is how it’s a social activity. Even if you prefer to run alone, you benefit from sharing experiences and advice with others, something I find most runners readily interested in doing.


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Jason R. Atwood

I'm an avid trail runner and doctoral student at U.C. Berkeley who studies motivation and the relationship between the mind and body. This blog is a forum to share research, news, and musings about these topics of interest. More

Play is the beginning of knowledge.

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