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The Mental Trick to Make Exercise More Comfortable

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First, this story comes with a disclaimer: Exercise should never hurt to the point where the pain limits or changes the way you move (like, if your ankle hurts so bad, its forcing you to limp.) That’s a sure sign that you may be—or will become—injured. (Find out the 5 Exercises Most Likely to Cause Injury.)

That said, let’s acknowledge an unhappy truth; working out doesn’t always feel wonderful. If you’re really pushing yourself to your limits, the point at which you’ll reap the max benefits of exercise, you’ll likely be pretty uncomfortable. What’s interesting, however, is that some of us experience pain and discomfort more intensely than others (in fact, something as random as your eye color may be an indicator of how well you handle pain, according to a University of Pittsburg study). Perhaps that’s one of the reasons some athletes are able to endure long, intense exercises while others throw in the towel just ten minutes in. But regardless of your natural pain threshold, there are some things you can do to manage discomfort when it comes to exercise and push through challenging moments.

In a recent PLOS Biology study, researchers wanted to find out whether people can actually use their minds to enhance or reduce pain. Study subjects endured thermal stimulation on their arm multiple times. During some of the tests, they were asked to mentally “increase” or “decrease” the pain intensity. To increase it, they were told to imagine that the heat was more painful than it was, and to focus on how unpleasant the pain was (they were even told to picture their skin being held up against a glowing hot metal or fire and to visualize their skin melting and sizzling (ouch!).) To mentally decrease pain, they were told to imagine that the heat was less painful and to focus on the sensation being pleasantly warm, like a blanket on a cold day.

Turns out, these strategies have a lot to do with the consequences of pain. Pain was intensified when participants mentally increased pain and was less severe when they cognitively decreased it, says study author Tor Wager, Ph.D.

But this isn’t just a technique to be used if you ever happen to get poked with a hot metal rod (here's hoping that doesn't happen). You can actually use this technique to help make exercise to feel more comfortable. (Try these 4 Simple Tips to Make Running Feel Easier, too.) If your feet start to get sore during a long marathon training run, for example, don’t distract yourself from the pain; change the way you think about it. Acknowledge that it’s a sign you’re working hard, but that it’s not going to hurt you. “You can focus on the suffering part or you can focus it on as a kind of sensory experience that isn’t necessarily bad,” says Wager. “Think of it just as an experience, knowing that the pain won’t actually harm you and that it will pass.”

Put another way, it’s possible to change your perspective on pain, just as it's possible to change how you think or feel about something like a donut, for example. You can think about a pink frosted and sprinkled donut as this yummy, delicious thing. Or, you can focus on the shape—it’s circular. Or, you can focus on the trans fats, calories, and sugar. Depending on how you think about it, you’ll feel differently about it and have a different experience while eating it, explains Wager.

Back to the exercise examples: If you get a small blister or hot spot on your foot but you know you have another five miles to go, remind yourself that this isn’t something that will hurt you. (Check out Running Tips: Blisters, Sore Nipples and Other Runner's Skin Problems Solved.) “You can decide that it’s going to be a huge problem and dwell on it, or you can think of it as sign that you’re pushing your body to get physical results and try to use your mind to reduce the pain sensation,” says Wager.

The bottom line: Everyone experiences pain differently in life and in fitness. The good news is that we can partially control how intensely we experience it. Mastering this technique can help you push through tough moments in your workouts and get better results, faster. Talk about a mind-body connection!

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