Research from Keele University in the United Kingdom has shown that swearing out loud can significantly increase physical strength. So for those who can’t help but throw in one or two swear words during outbursts, you’ve just found a relevant excuse for offended bystanders.
Alongside eating and watching TV, swearing is a universal part of the human experience. Whether you’ve never used them at all or you punctuate your sentences with them, swear words are all around us.
And no, swearing is not left for teenagers or young adults alone. Kids and grannies have a stake in the business too. It has been documented in virtually every culture on earth, meaning that there must be more to swear words than easily appeals to the senses.
Asides the social side of swearing, it has been shown to have medical relevance too. It may also occur alongside some disease conditions like brain injury from trauma, and depression in the elderly. Most notorious, perhaps, the use of swear words and other taboo phrases is a common component of a condition known as Tourette’s syndrome.
Thus, many researchers have been interested in swearing and its potential effects on the body functions. A study published in 2009 found that using swear words increased participants’ ability to tolerate pain. Another study from 2011 found that swearing could increase people’s ability to tolerate cold.
Why should this be so? The most likely explanation is that, by swearing, we trigger our “fight or flight” response, which, in turn, reduces sensations of pain.
Swearing makes you stronger
Led by Dr. Richard Stephens, senior lecturer in psychology at Keele, the experiment had a two-pronged design: in the first phase of the experiment, 29 participants (aged 21 on average) endured a short but intense burst of activity on an exercise bike. Each participant had two run-throughs. In one, they were asked to repeat a swear word out loud, and during the other, they repeated a neutral word.
In the second phase, 52 participants (aged 19.1 on average) carried out a handgrip test. Each participant completed the test three times while repeating a swear word and three times repeating a neutral word.
Once the data had been analyzed, a clear effect was seen: swearing helped to produce more power in the anaerobic test and gave the participants a stronger grip.
Specifically, while swearing during the cycling exercise, peak power was increased by 24 watts, without increasing the perceived level of exertion. In the handgrip trial, swearing increased grip strength by an average of 2.1 kilograms.
How does this happen?
Although the findings might seem surprising, they strengthen results from previous experiments conducted by the same group.
“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.”
Dr. Richard Stephens
Stimulating the sympathetic nervous system would have the effect of increasing strength, too, as the team found. However, if this system was behind the increases in strength, there would be other changes that the researchers would expect to see – for example, change in heart rate, skin appearance, and blood pressure. On the contrary, however, these changes were not observed.
This leaves the team with further questions to answer in future research. “So quite why it is that swearing has these effects on strength and pain tolerance remains to be discovered,” Dr. Stephens says. “We have yet to understand the power of swearing fully.”