If you've got a task that takes strength, you may want to let out a few expletives while doing it. Researchers have found snarling a few choice words during a workout can produce a boost of power.
The researchers suspected people might display more strength while cussing because an earlier study had found that people could withstand pain more easily while spouting their favorite swear words.
The study’s lead author, Richard Stephens, said he suspects plenty of people are already swearing during workouts. “But our study shows it may actually help,” said Stephens, a senior lecturer in psychology at Keele University in the UK.
The team of British and American researchers conducted two experiments to test the power of curse words. In the first, 29 study volunteers, whose average age was 21, sat on a stationary bike pedaling for all they were worth. In the first run through, the volunteers were asked to swear while working out, and then they were asked to do the same test without swearing.
Comparing performances with and without swearing, the researchers found cuss words boosted performance by 2 to 4 percent, Stephens said.
In the second experiment, 52 volunteers, whose average age was 19, grasped a device that tested hand grip strength. Again, the volunteers’ efforts while swearing were compared to results when they were not. Once again, cussing boosted strength, this time by about 8 percent, Stephens said.
Stephens and his colleagues originally thought that swearing might boost power by triggering a person’s fight-or-flight response and thus dulling pain, but they determined that heart rates did not change depending on whether volunteers swore or not. So it wasn't all about pain relief.
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Stephens suspects the real explanation may be that swearing provides a distraction that allows people to push harder than they normally would.
Dr. David Levinthal found the study “intriguing,” and suggested the effect might be similar to what happens when people meditate with a mantra.
Research into the mind-body connection is still in its infancy, said Levinthal, an assistant professor of medicine and director of the Neurogastroenterology and Motility Center at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
We don’t yet understand “how thoughts and feelings influence our bodies,” said Levinthal, who was not affiliated with the new research. “We know that our heart races when we see a loved one, but we don’t know how it happens.”
Another possible explanation for the new findings is “catharsis,” Levinthal said, adding that for many people, “it feels good to swear.”
That positive feeling may help people pedal longer and grip stronger, Levinthal suggested.