We all experience pain during exercise differently. It is subjective. The pain we experience is both the result of our own sense of discomfort, actual tissue injury (which can be non-critical), and just the result of the stimulation of nerve cells, distinct from any damage to muscle or tissues. Our ability to deal with this pain will depend on many factors – age, sex, and physical wellbeing will have some impact – but chiefly, it comes down to subjective perceptions.
Granted, pain can indicate danger to the body but not all pain is because something bad is happening. Intense workouts cause pain, not physical harm but that pain changes the experience and people’s responses and also changes their behavior. We all feel that to some extent.
Sometimes we push through it and some people, especially athletes and pros, can go further than the average person by a wide margin. In many cases, an average person will probably withdraw from the experience of a workout because of the pain and miss out on the benefits.
There’s a measure of our tolerance for pain, Private Body Consciousness (PBC), which is lower for people who can withstand greater discomfort and pain. It’s basically the awareness that you have of your own internal bodily sensations.
Researchers at the University of Kent1 studied the use of VR headsets while exercising to reduce pain and increase how long someone can sustain an activity. The research, led by PhD candidate Maria Matsangidou, set out to determine how using VR while exercising could affect performance by measuring a raft of criteria: heart rate, including pain intensity, perceived exhaustion, time to exhaustion and private body consciousness.
To do this they monitored 80 individuals performing an isometric bicep curl set at 20% of the maximum weight they could lift, which they were then asked to hold for as long as possible. Half of the group acted as a control group who did the lift and held inside a room that had a chair, a table and yoga mat on the floor.
The VR group were placed in the same room with the same items. They then put on a VR headset and saw the same environment, including a visual representation of an arm and the weight. They then carried out the same lift and hold as the non-VR group.
The results showed a clear reduction in perception of pain and effort when using VR technology. The data showed that after a minute the VR group had reported a pain intensity that was 10% lower than the non-VR group.
Furthermore, the time to exhaustion for the VR group was around two minutes longer than those doing conventional exercise. The VR group also showed a lower heart rate of three beats per minute than the non-VR group.
Results from the study also showed no significant effect of PBC on the positive impact of VR. Previous research has shown that individuals who have a high PBC tend to better understand their body and as a result, perceive higher pain when exercising. However, the study's findings revealed that VR was effective in reducing perceived pain and that PBC did not lessen this effect.
As such, the improvements shown by the VR group suggest that it could be a possible way to encourage less active people to exercise by reducing the perceived pain that exercise can cause and improving performance, regardless of private body consciousness.
Lead researcher Maria Matsangidou said: 'It is clear from the data gathered that the use of VR technology can improve performance during exercise on a number of criteria. This could have major implications for exercise regimes for everyone, from occasional gym users to professional athletes.'
1. Maria Matsangidou, Chee Siang Ang, Alexis R. Mauger, Jittrapol Intarasirisawat, Boris Otkhmezuri, Marios N. Avraamides. "Is your virtual self as sensational as your real? Virtual Reality: The effect of body consciousness on the experience of exercise sensations." Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 2018.