It is no secret that exercise is one of the best things you can do for your health, especially as you get older. In older people, exercise is associated with a decreased risk of death; stronger bones and muscles; preserved independence; better mental health; and decreased risks of cancer, heart disease , and type 2 diabetes .

Exercising later in life has also been shown to help reduce pain, which is common with aging. But some health professionals have expressed concern that vigorous exercise, such as running, may be associated with increased pain and disability, since running can increase the risk of injuries and their complications.

A new study in the September 19, 2005 issue of Arthritis Research and Therapy compared members of the Fifty-Plus Runners’ Association to older people not in this group and found that avid exercisers had significantly lower pain over a period of 14 years.

About the Study

This study included 492 Fifty-Plus Runners’ Association members and 374 control participants, who were taking part in a cholesterol study. The average age of the participants when the study began was 63 years.

The participants filled out mailed questionnaires every year, which assessed their medical history, health status, exercise habits, history of injuries, height and weight, smoking status, and alcohol use.

Using the data from these questionnaires, the researchers determined the number of weekly minutes each participant exercised vigorously (resulting in sweating and a pulse rate over 120). In each questionnaire, the participants rated their level of pain and stiffness in the past week on a scale of 0-100 (with 0 indicating no pain and 100 indicating worst pain).

In their analyses, the researchers controlled for other factors that may influence pain, including gender, age, body mass index (BMI, a measure of weight in relation to height), smoking, arthritis, fractures, and cancer.

The Findings

The Runners’ Association group exercised for an average of 314 minutes and ran about 26 miles per week, compared with the control group’s 123 minutes and 2 miles. The Runners’ Association members tended to report more fractures than the controls (53% versus 47%), but the difference was not statistically significant.

After 14 years of follow-up, the runners’ pain scores remained significantly lower than the controls. For all participants, there were significant increases in pain associated with aging. But throughout the study, the runners had about 25% less pain than the control group.

These findings are limited because they are based on the participants’ subjective rating of their own pain, which is unavoidable in a study like this. But many other studies have shown that self-reported pain is a fairly good predictor of overall health status.

How Does This Affect You?

These results suggest that regular vigorous exercise in people ages 50 and older is associated with long-term reductions in pain. Although there may be a slight increased risk of injury (at least with running), the benefits are likely to outweigh the risks for most individuals.

While this study could not determine why exercise helps reduce pain, the authors suggest some possible mechanisms. The endorphin release that exercisers experience may help prevent or reduce pain. (Endophorines are a class of brain chemicals with morphine-like effects.) In addition, pain reduction may result from the protection exercise affords against fibromyalgia (a disorder that causes muscle pain and fatigue), strengthening of muscles and bones, psychological benefits, or other mechanisms.

This study provides yet another reason to incorporate exercise into your daily routine. Before embarking on a vigorous exercise program, it’s best to talk to your doctor about choosing one that will be safe and enjoyable for you. To avoid injury, start slowly, exercising 1-2 days a week for a few minutes at a time, and build from there. You should aim to get at least 30 minutes of exercise on at least most days of the week. A well-balanced exercise routine includes cardiovascular, strengthening, balancing, and stretching exercises.