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Good News, Humans: Swearing Can Actually Make You Stronger

No <bleep>, no gain.

DAVID NIELD
6 MAY 2017
 

If you need that extra push to complete a cycle ride or gym workout, then you might want to let out an expletive or two, because a new study suggests swearing can make you that bit stronger.

Participants using an exercise bike or performing a hand grip test produced more power when they repeated a swear word aloud compared with a neutral word, researchers have found.

 

A team from Keele University in the UK hasn't yet come up with an hypothesis for why this might be the case, but it's something to bear in mind the next time you're struggling to get through the home straight - as long as there are no young children around...

"In the short period of time we looked at there are benefits from swearing," one of the researchers, psychologist Richard Stephens, told Ian Sample at The Guardian.

Two experiments were carried out - in the first, 29 volunteers tested their anaerobic power during short, intense bursts on an exercise bike.

Participants had to pick two words: a swear word they might use when accidentally hitting their head, and a neutral word they might use to describe a table (like "wooden" or "brown").

One bike run was completed with the swear words repeated in an even tone, and one with the neutral words. The peak power produced by the cyclists rose by 24 watts on average when foul language was used.

Next, 52 different volunteers were asked to run through an isometric hand test. Again with their choice of curse word, and then their choice of neutral word.

 

When swearing, people's strength was boosted by the equivalent of 2.1 kilograms (4.6 pounds) on average, the researchers said.

"Quite why it is that swearing has these effects on strength and pain tolerance remains to be discovered," says Stephens.

We can probably rule out the swearing causing a fight-or-flight response, though - heart rates measured during the tests showed no significant changes whether people were swearing or not swearing.

It's important to bear in mind that the study used a relatively small sample size, and has yet to be peer-reviewed journal, so these findings are intriguing rather than conclusive for the time being.

But the research does tie in with an earlier study carried out by Stephens and his colleagues, which found that throwing out expletives increases a person's pain threshold.

The researchers admit that we have yet to fully understand the reactions that swearing kicks off in the body, but more and more, scientists are looking into it.

 

A little boost of strength isn't the only thing swearing has going for it - another study published earlier this year found that people who cursed more often were also more likely to be honest, based on tests run on 276 participants.

"Swearing is often inappropriate, but it can also be evidence that someone is telling you their honest opinion," explained one of the researchers, David Stillwell from the University of Cambridge in the UK.

And not only do foul-mouthed people appear to more honest, they might also be more articulate, according to a separate study from Marist College in 2015. It found that those who knew more swear words also had a larger vocabulary overall than those who didn't.

Stronger, more honest, more articulate... it seems the benefits of being a regular swearer are adding up, even if all your friends think you're something of a potty mouth.

What we need next is a more scientific take on exactly what brain functions are triggered by swearing, and the processes at work in the body - in that regard it's still early days.

But this latest study might only be confirming something we already instinctively knew to be true.

"We're not telling people something they don't already know, but we're verifying that in a systematic and objective way," Stephens told The Guardian.

"I think people instinctively reach for swear words when they hurt themselves and when they're looking for an extra boost in performance."

The research was recently presented at a meeting of the British Psychological Society in the UK.

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