Study finds swearing boosts strength and stamina

Andy Murray turns the air blue for a reason, research suggests.
Andy Murray turns the air blue for a reason, research suggests.
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Muscle strength and stamina can be boosted by turning the air blue, a study has found.

Swearing may help a cyclist struggling uphill to summon up extra pedal power, new research has suggested – and a dose of foul language might be what it takes to free that jammed bottle top at home.

Psychologists conducted tests in which volunteers had to swear before doing intense sessions on an exercise bike, or squeezing a device that measures hand grip strength. In both, swearing led to significant improvements in performance compared with uttering neutral words.

The study followed up earlier work that showed swearing increases pain tolerance, helping explain the common reaction to hitting one’s thumb with a hammer.

Dr Richard Stephens, from the University of Keele, who led both teams, said: “We know from our earlier research that swearing makes people more able to tolerate pain. A possible reason for this is that it stimulates the body’s sympathetic nervous system – that’s the system that makes your heart pound when you are in danger.

“If that is the reason, we would expect swearing to make people stronger too, and that is just what we found.”

However, researchers were surprised that increases in heart rate and other expected changes linked to the “fight or flight” response were not seen in the latest tests.

Dr Stephens added: “Quite why it is that swearing has these effects on strength and pain tolerance remains to be discovered. We have yet to understand the power of swearing fully.”

Dr Stephens said study participants were invited to use a swear word they would typically utter if suffering a bang on the head. Allowing volunteers to choose their swear words ensured the words meant something to them.

Dr Stephens said: “It doesn’t seem to be related to autonomic [fight or flight] arousal. We have some suggestions about what might be behind this effect which will need further research. It could be that it involves the pain relief effect we registered before. Pain perception and pain relief are quite complex things. Swear words have a distracting effect.

“If you’re asked to squeeze a hand gripper as hard as you can there’s a certain amount of discomfort, and it could be that this is reduced by being distracted. Swearing seems to be a form of emotional language. Perhaps it’s the emotional effect of the words that leads to the distraction, but this is just speculation.”

The findings were presented at the British Psychological Society’s annual meeting in Brighton.