Why high-intensity exercise can help ease midlife pain

At the age of 58, cycling convert Marco Baggioli is relishing the high-intensity thrills of time-trial racing – a challenging sport that sees him cycle at speeds of 40-50kph. His vigorous workouts certainly hurt during the sessions themselves, but they seem to be protecting him against the everyday aches and pains which haunt many of his friends and colleagues of the same age. “I don’t remember feeling healthier than this, even when I was younger,” insists Baggioli, who started cycling in his late 40s. “I feel like I am getting better and better. My 10-mile record is down from 22 minutes in 2018 to about 20 minutes today. But even when I feel tired, it is ‘healthy tired,’ not muscle aches or pain.” 

Baggioli is one of a growing number of 50-somethings who have learnt that challenging exercise can keep you feeling young, supple and pain-free. For years many people have assumed that hard exercise causes – rather than prevents – joint and muscle pain in older age. But there is growing evidence that it can have a protective effect. A recent study of people aged 50 and above, by the University of Portsmouth, found that people who perform vigorous or moderate exercise suffer less bone, joint and muscle pain in later life. Examples of vigorous activity recorded in the study include swimming, jogging and digging with a spade, while moderate exercise included dancing, stretching, fast walking or gardening.

“The findings are not entirely novel, as we knew that physical activity can be beneficial in the context of pain, but what’s really novel is that the activity needs to be of sufficient intensity and frequency,” explains Dr Nils Niederstrasser, a lecturer at the University of Portsmouth. “About 50 per cent of those aged between 55 and 75 tend to report pain complaints, and that can go as high as 62 per cent for those aged 75 and older. But it still means that there are a good number of people who don’t report pain at that age, so pain is not an inevitability.” 

Although all exercise was found to protect against pain, only high physical activity (defined as vigorous activity at least once a week) was associated with a lower risk of musculoskeletal pain 10 years later. It seems that people who enjoy challenging bike rides, tennis matches or gym workouts in their senior years are onto something. “It’s important to stay physically active,” concludes Dr Niederstrasser. “And if you can be active, try to make it of sufficient frequency and intensity.” 

Experts believe this may be because challenging exercise improves muscle function, cartilage health and bone mass better than mild exercise, thereby reducing your risk of joint and muscle pain. It also helps to control body weight, which prevents muscular degradation and lower back, knee and hip pain that often comes from being overweight. 

Baggioli is certainly not surprised at the findings. “As you age, you lose a lot of muscle power, so it is important to do high-intensity stuff to keep that muscle power,” he explains. 

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