Happy snaps beat pain

Always look on the bright side for top results

"No pain, no gain". Just hearing it hurts and makes me want to lie down. But a clever new study about pain and cycling has made me sit up.

First, let's deal with the origins of the facile phrase and then we'll go right into the latest science.

Ground truth

The four foul words could be blamed on Robert Herrick, a prolific and much lauded poet from 17th century London, long before the invention of boot camps and the exercise industry. 

Among the hundreds of works he created is a two-line poem, titled No pains, no gains

If little labour, little are our gains:

Man's fortunes are according to his pains.

That's it. Full stop. Two lines is all he wrote for that one. Maybe he didn't know any more words that rhymed. It can't have been easy back in 1650 because there were far fewer words in the English language so there was less chance of finding rhyming pairs. For a start, London in those days had precious few drains and no trains at all.

He wrote many more poems, including some lewd and a fair few about fathers, probably because his own committed suicide when Robert was still a toddler. (One autumnal Thursday, Herrick Senior went upstairs and fell from a window into Cheapside, gaining eternal rest. There was no pane.)

Mind you, Robert might've "borrowed" his rhyme from Rabbi Ben Hei Hei who said According to the pain is the gain way back in the second century CE. But here's a spoiler: a professional cantor has told me that in its original Hebrew the killer pair of words are unlikely to have rhymed, which might explain why it didn’t catch on.

Of course, anyone over 50 or with family who've kept all their VCR tapes will be familiar with Jane Fonda's use of the vile phrase in her workouts from the 1980s. She shortened both precedents, the poet's and the Rabbi's, to a mere four words, probably because she was out of breath and desperate to shower. Her words have gained such common usage that her ears must be burning every day. I hope she feels it.

Clever new research

Whatever. It's a phrase I avoid because I give greater regard to the fact that pain is a warning. It's why I'm not an Olympian and hence I was intrigued to see a clever new study. 

It seems to show that if you look pain squarely in the face before exercise the only thing you'll gain will be increased suffering and a bad performance. Putting it another way, scientists have found that cyclists who'd looked at happy snaps and pretty pictures achieved better results than if they'd seen photos of people who were clearly hurting.

As with many really good studies, the findings might seem obvious. Put yourself in a good mood and everything gets easier. Conversely, upset yourself and life gets harder. That's intuitive and is easy but using science to check out something intuitive is significantly harder than, say, writing a cheap rhyme.

So, the cunning researchers had to devise a tortuous experiment to see if physiological performance is affected by the psychological effect of looking at strong images of people expressing agony, delight or neither.

😫 or 😄 or 😶

They recruited 21 cyclists who exercised at least three hours a week. They don't say if any of the 13 men and eight women had ever worked out with Jane Fonda but, with them all aged in their 20s and 30s, I'm guessing not.

All were warned at the outset they would see some "potentially distressing images" but not told the specific reason why. I'm so cautious I would've quit at that point. Fortunately, it was handled in such a way they all agreed to a couple of sessions on ergometers, laboratory exercise bikes, for the researchers to capture some baseline physiological and psychological data.

A few days later the volunteers returned and an assistant showed them one of three sets of 25 photos. One set was of images judged to be feelgood, another neutral and another of anguished people, often cyclists. Unless a volunteer was weird and repulsed by people enjoying themselves or by natural landscapes, it was the set of pained people pictures that might have triggered some distress.

Experimental integrity

Before racing ahead, here’s some crucial stuff which underpins the validity of the research. The image set the volunteers saw was selected randomly by an assistant using an algorithm. The assistant didn't know what the experiment was about. When the volunteers went through to ride the exercise bikes again, this time including a simulated 10-mile time trial, the researchers didn't know which of the three image sets they'd seen.

Why was it crucial for the assistant to be ignorant about the experiment and the researchers to be equally ignorant about the photos displayed? It's because this strategy minimised the risk of anybody unconsciously influencing the volunteers' pedalling performances. 

The reputations of other psychology experiments have been undermined without this strategy. The people "conditioning" the volunteers and those interacting with them during the experiment, knowing how they'd been "conditioned", might have unwittingly behaved in a way that changed the volunteers' responses. That would make the results biased.

Numbers crunched

With the safeguard strategy securely in place for this study, the experiment routine was repeated twice more during the next 10 days, with a different set of images being displayed to the volunteers each time they returned. By then, the researchers had physiological and psychological data about each rider's performance on the ergometer after seeing all of the happy, neutral or painful photo sets.

Crunching the numbers, they concluded that volunteers' legs hurt more during the exercise if they'd looked at the pained pictures than at the happy or neutral ones. Also, they were slower at finishing the time trial. 

On a scale from zero being no pain to 10 being maximum pain, the volunteers said that, at rest, their own legs hurt at about level six after seeing the pained images. That is massively agonising when compared to the average pain level of less than 1.5 they'd felt during riding after they'd viewed the pleasant or neutral images.

As for the simulated 10-mile time trial, would you rather finish a 10 mile race against the clock in 29 mins 38s or in 30 mins 19s? The quicker finish was their averaged times after seeing the pleasant or neutral images. By now I won't need to tell you what pictures they seen before they put in the slower time.

There are other findings from the research which should interest sports psychologists and lead to a better understanding of what influences how well people perform. 

For me, though, this study, tells me that before I set out to produce my best, with least pain and maximum gain, I should avoid looking at any pictures of grimacing heroes.

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On the shoulders of giants

Many thanks to Ali Astokorki , Andrew Flood & Alexis Mauger for their paper, "Images depicting human pain increase exercise- induced pain and impair endurance cycling performance", published online by the Journal of Sports Sciences on 18 Aug 2020 

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Two corrections were made to this article on 24 August 2020.

First, references to the experiment being “double-blinded” were removed. The researchers were blinded to the order of images used to condition the volunteers but the volunteers themselves were not blinded to their condition.

Secondly, it was made clear the volunteers’ rating of pain was recorded when they were at rest. My thanks to the researchers for their kind words and helpful comments.


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