“If you can believe it, you can be it” may be an effective approach to enduring the discomforts of exercise. In a small study, women who thought that they could tolerate the pain of exercise reported less pain than women who did not have faith in their ability to continue exercising through soreness.

One of the reasons new exercisers may not stick with a fitness program is that they cannot endure the muscular aches that occur when starting a new regimen. Researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign wanted to evaluate whether belief in one’s ability to withstand pain might actually affect the experience of pain. To test this, they recorded pain tolerance levels among 28 active young women who were asked to exercise at maximal intensity on a stationary bike. Prior to starting, the women rated their ability to continue cycling after thigh pain developed. While biking, they continued to rate the amount of pain they felt. The women who believed they could tolerate pain experienced less pain than those who did not believe that they were capable of handling it.

The researchers theorized that the principle of self-efficacy—the belief in one’s capabilities to organize and execute the actions necessary to produce a given objective—might explain this result. They also suggested that harnessing this belief might be a way to increase exercise adherence in those who have difficulty sticking with a new workout program. The study was published in The Journal of Pain (2006; 7 [5], 301–307).