Cherry juice and other ways to reduce post-exercise soreness

I have a confession: I don’t mind exercise-related pain. In fact, I welcome it. Now before you conclude that I’m a masochist, let me explain: The type of pain I’m talking about is soreness that comes after exercise and may last for a few days before going away. Known as delayed onset muscle soreness, or DOMS for short, it’s a sign that your workout is making you stronger. I consider it “good” pain. That’s in contrast to “bad” pain, which typically happens during exercise and gets worse afterward. It’s a sign that you have an injury.

Any type of activity can cause DOMS, especially if the exercise is strenuous or something to which your body isn’t accustomed. However, DOMS is most likely to occur after muscle-lengthening (or eccentric) movements such as lowering a dumbbell or running downhill.

For nearly a century, DOMS was widely attributed to the buildup of lactic acid in muscles. Today, lactic acid retains its reputation among some in the fitness world as a pain-causing waste product. But science has shown that to be a bum rap. Our muscles break down glucose into lactic acid (technically lactate), which is used as fuel. Lactate is removed from muscle within a few hours after exercise, so lactic acid can’t explain soreness that occurs a day or two later.

Instead, researchers now believe that the discomfort is due to the process by which the body repairs micro-tears in muscle caused by exercise. Soreness isn’t the only symptom; swelling, stiffness, tenderness and a reduction in strength and range of motion can also occur. When you do the same activity again, your DOMS will likely be milder — or won’t occur at all. And you’ll be stronger.

It’s generally fine to exercise with DOMS, though you may need to dial back the intensity or focus on areas not affected. Taking a day off to rest is OK, but don’t use DOMS as an excuse for an extended (or permanent) break from exercise.

In fact, physical activity may decrease your soreness, at least while you’re doing the activity. Other methods may provide some relief as well. Here’s the lowdown on three of them.

Heat and cold

In a review of 17 trials of ice-bath treatments, which are often used by athletes, researchers concluded that the technique may reduce soreness after exercise. But sitting in a tub of water chilled to 50-something degrees Fahrenheit — ideally for 10 to 15 minutes, according to research — isn’t exactly pleasant.

A relatively new method is whole-body cryotherapy, in which you sit or stand for two to four minutes in a special chamber where the temperature is as low as minus 300 degrees Fahrenheit. (No, that’s not a typo.) A review of four studies found that there’s insufficient evidence to tell whether whole-body cryotherapy reduces DOMS. And potential risks, which include frostbite, oxygen deficiency and asphyxiation, have yet to be studied.

The conventional wisdom, with little direct evidence to support it, has been that cold is superior to heat in reducing DOMS. To test this idea, researchers did a randomized, head-to-head comparison. One hundred young adults performed squats for 15 minutes and then received one of four therapies: 1) cold wraps immediately after exercise; 2) cold wraps 24 hours after exercise; 3) heat wraps immediately after exercise; 4) heat wraps 24 hours after exercise. A fifth group, which served as a control, received no treatment.

Cold wraps were placed on both legs for 20 minutes. Heat wraps were left on subjects’ legs for eight hours to give adequate time for the heat to penetrate deeply into muscle. (The temperature — about 104 degrees Fahrenheit — was low enough so as not to burn the skin.) The verdict: Both heat and cold therapy reduced soreness, but cold — whether applied immediately after exercise or 24 hours later — was superior to heat.

Though scientists aren’t sure exactly why cold or heat might reduce DOMS, it is known that the two have opposite physiological effects: Cold constricts blood vessels and reduces blood flow, while heat dilates vessels and increases flow. Based on this, some athletes alternate between cold and heat, which they claim creates a “pumping action” of constriction and dilation that removes waste products from muscles and brings in fresh blood. Known as contrast therapy, this approach typically involves spending one or two minutes in a cold bath followed by a warm bath, and then repeating the sequence multiple times.

Pooling data from 13 studies, researchers found that contrast therapy decreases post-exercise soreness more than resting does. But it doesn’t appear to offer any advantages over cold water alone. While it’s possible that longer times in the water might yield different results, all the tub hopping probably isn’t worth the effort.

Massage

Getting a massage is certainly more enjoyable than sitting in a cold bath, and research suggests it may reduce DOMS, at least temporarily. In a review of nine studies on massage, six of them found that it alleviated soreness. The rub, however, is that the benefit generally occurred only in the early stages of DOMS, at 24 hours post-exercise. At 48 and 72 hours after exercise, there was less evidence that massage helped.

Though researchers aren’t sure why massage reduces pain, possible explanations include its effects on inflammation, stress hormones or the nervous system. Another theory is that massage increases blood flow to muscles, though some studies refute this idea and even show that massage may have the opposite effect. Perhaps the most common explanation is that it works by removing lactic acid. But as previously mentioned, lactic acid isn’t a cause of DOMS.

Because studies have used different massage techniques, it’s unclear which methods are most effective. There’s also uncertainty about timing and duration, though in most of the studies that showed a benefit, massages were done two or three hours after exercise and lasted 20 to 30 minutes.

One possible downside of massage is the cost. But self-massage performed with a foam roller may be a relatively inexpensive alternative.

Tart cherry juice

Though the research is preliminary, there is some evidence that tart cherry juice can reduce soreness. For example, in a small, randomized study, male college students drank either tart cherry juice or a placebo beverage for four days, did bicep curls to induce DOMS, and then drank their assigned beverage for another four days. Those consuming the cherry juice reported less soreness than the non juice-drinkers, and their pain peaked and declined more rapidly.

In another study, semi-professional soccer players consumed tart cherry concentrate (which was mixed with water) or a placebo for eight days. On day five, they ran sprint intervals. Post-exercise soreness was lower in those who had gotten the tart cherry concentrate.

As for how tart cherries might alleviate pain, they’re rich in substances called anthocyanins, which are known to reduce inflammation. And research in rats has found tart cherry anthocyanins to have effects similar to those of pain medications known as NSAIDs.

Though the optimal dose is unknown, subjects in studies consumed the equivalent of about 100 cherries per day, which you can typically get in two cups of tart cherry juice or a smaller amount of concentrate. If you follow the regimen for multiple days, as was done in research, the extra calories and sugar can quickly add up. That may be a price for pain relief that you don’t want to pay.

The take-away is that while some methods touted for reducing soreness may provide a bit of relief, all have shortcomings and none is guaranteed to keep DOMS at bay. With or without these remedies, you’ll likely experience some degree of soreness after intense workouts. But don’t let this scare you off or stop you from continuing. Remind yourself that the soreness is only temporary, but the benefits of exercise, if you keep at it, are lasting.

Better hearing, less constipation and other surprising benefits of exercise

Periodically, we see reports that scientists are closer to developing a pill that would mimic the benefits of exercise.

The truth is that no medication or supplement even comes close to exercise for being able to do so much for so many people — or probably ever will.

While we’ve all heard that regular exercise can improve heart health and strengthen muscles, it can also enhance the quality of your life in a number of ways. Five such benefits may surprise you.

Sounder sleep

The headline of a survey by the National Sleep Foundation said it best: “Exercise is good for sleep.” In the poll of 1,000 people, those who exercised the most vigorously reported the best sleep quality overall. And they were less likely than non-exercisers to say that in the past two weeks, they had experienced problems such as trouble falling asleep or waking during the night.

These findings are supported by a review of 66 studies on exercise and sleep. It concluded that regular exercise is comparable to sleep medication or behavioral therapy in improving the ability to fall asleep, as well as sleep duration and quality.

Researchers aren’t sure why, but they suspect that physical activity may help by affecting body temperature, metabolic rate, heart rate or anxiety level, among other things.

Because exercise also revs up your body, conventional wisdom has it that exercising in the evening can interfere with sleep. But research in young adults as well as older people has failed to support this assertion.

Of course, everyone is different, so it’s possible that nighttime exercise may make it harder for you to sleep. But the only way to know is to try. You may be pleasantly surprised at what a little pre-bedtime sweat can do for your sleep.

Fewer colds

You may have heard fitness buffs claim that they never get sick. This may seem like baseless — not to mention annoying — boasting, but there is scientific truth to it. Numerous studies have linked regular exercise to a lower risk of colds.

For example, a study that followed 1,000 adults for three months found that those who did aerobic exercise at least five days a week were about half as likely to develop colds as those who didn’t exercise. And when exercisers did catch colds, they had fewer and less severe symptoms than their couch-potato peers.

These studies, which show associations but not cause and effect, are corroborated by randomized trials on exercise and colds. In one such experiment, sedentary postmenopausal women were assigned either moderately intense exercise (such as brisk walking) five days a week or once-a-week stretching. By the final three months of the 12-month study, those doing regular exercise reported having substantially fewer colds than the stretchers.

Research in animals and humans suggests that exercise chases away colds by boosting the immune system. At the same time, very intense activities may suppress immunity by increasing levels of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline.

That perhaps explains why, in one study, runners who participated in a Los Angeles marathon were nearly six times more likely to get sick in the week after the race than runners who did not participate.

Though this is a potential issue for elite athletes or people who do marathons or triathlons, the level of activity among most exercisers — even if it’s vigorous — is far more likely to keep colds at bay than bring them on.

Healthier eyes

When you hear about a connection between exercise and eyesight, maybe you picture those eye exercise programs that promise to sharpen your vision. But that’s not what we’re talking about. Instead of moving your eyes, the idea is to move your feet.

Research shows that people who are physically active have a lower risk of cataracts. For example, a study of nearly 50,000 runners and walkers found that those who exercised most vigorously were 42% less likely to develop cataracts than those who exercised the least vigorously. Exercisers who fell in the middle in terms of intensity were also at reduced risk, though to a lesser degree.

The same researcher found a similar benefit regarding age-related macular degeneration, a leading cause of vision loss also known as AMD, in a study of nearly 42,000 runners. The more people ran, the more their risk of the condition declined. A different study, which followed roughly 4,000 people for 15 years, showed that participants who were physically active were less likely to develop AMD than those who weren’t active.

Scientists aren’t sure why exercise protects against cataracts and age-related macular degeneration. One possibility is that it reduces inflammation, which is associated with both conditions.

Cataracts and AMD have also been linked to risk factors for cardiovascular disease, including elevated blood sugar and triglycerides, which regular exercise can improve. Further, some research suggests that people who are overweight or obese are more prone to cataracts and AMD, so physical activity may help by preventing weight gain.

Enhanced hearing

You heard it here first: Exercise may be good for your hearing. A study of more than 68,000 female nurses, who were followed for 20 years, found that walking at least two hours a week was associated with a lower risk of hearing loss. Other research has linked higher fitness levels with better hearing.

Exercise may protect against hearing loss by improving blood flow to the cochlea, the snail-shaped structure in the inner ear that converts sound waves into nerve signals that are sent to the brain. What’s more, it may prevent the loss of neurotransmitters, which carry those signals between nerve cells. Exercise may also help by reducing the risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease, both of which are linked to hearing loss.

Of course, blasting music into your ears while you exercise could have the opposite effect and do damage to your hearing. Noise-canceling headphones are a good option because they reduce the need to turn up your music as much. But don’t use them while exercising on a busy road. By being unaware of approaching traffic, you could be subjecting yourself to a risk far more serious than loud music.

Better bathroom habits

The place to start, naturally, is No. 1: Though high-impact activities such as jumping or running can cause women to leak urine, research shows that moderate exercise may decrease the risk. For example, a study of middle-aged female nurses found that those who were physically active had lower rates of urinary incontinence than women who were inactive. A study of older nurses by the same team of researchers yielded similar findings.

A urinary problem familiar to many middle-aged and older men is nocturia, the need to get up more than once a night to pee. Often, the cause is an enlarged prostate, a condition known as benign prostatic hyperplasia. Exercise can help prevent nocturia or reduce its severity.

In a large study of men with benign prostatic hyperplasia, those who were physically active for an hour or more per week were less likely to report nocturia than those who were sedentary. Likewise, a study of sedentary older men found that after eight weeks of daily walking, they urinated less frequently during the night.

Another common bathroom-related problem for both men and women is constipation, which exercise can help improve as well. In a study of 62,000 women, those who reported daily physical activity were nearly half as likely to experience constipation as women who exercised less than once a week. A randomized trial involving inactive middle-aged men and women with chronic constipation found that those assigned to a 12-week exercise program were able to poop more easily.

Exercise helps by decreasing transit time. That’s how long it takes food to move through the digestive tract — not, as it sounds, the amount of time it takes to get to work. Alas, a shorter commute is one benefit that exercise may not have — unless, of course, biking to work is faster for you than driving in heavy traffic.