Over the last year, the list of activities we had access to became extremely abbreviated, upending how we normally take care of our physical and emotional health.
One odd — yet not surprising — side effect you might have experienced as a result? An uptick in random sounds (grunts, oofs and other varieties of strained exhales), every time you sit, stand or bend over; a phenomenon that makes something as effortless as rolling over sound as strenuous as running a 5K.
But don’t be fooled: Age isn’t necessarily to blame for the groans that accompany your everyday movements. “It’s usually either a learned behavior or a response to actual pain and stiffness, both of which can be experienced at any age or fitness level,” said Lisa N. Folden, a licensed physical therapist in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Why grunting can happen when you reposition your body
Grunting during movement is most prominent in athletes (think: tennis players, weightlifters) and studies suggest that, compared to not grunting, the act leads to an increase in force — resulting in harder hits during tennis and harder kicks during mixed martial arts, for instance.
The exact reason for that still needs to be determined by researchers, but the current theory is that grunting may activate the body’s sympathetic response (better known as fight-or-flight) and trigger more forceful muscle contractions in the process.
Getting up from the couch or bending over to lift a box may not be as high-stakes as competing in the French Open, but letting out a grunt as you make your move might be what gives your core muscles the added oomph they need to help you get the job done.
Many people grunt when they move simply out of habit
“Most people who make noises when they move are doing so out of habit,” Folden said. “Even when there’s no significant pain or stiffness present, grunting happens because they’ve subconsciously learned it to be a normal response.”
This might be because your family or friends always emit sound effects when they move and you picked it up from them without realizing it — or you could have simply started doing it one day and there’s no underlying origin story.
“When confronted with this information and encouraged to take inventory of whether or not their body’s hurting with movement, they may recognize it’s not and begin to no longer grunt when they reposition,” Folden said.
Grunting can also be a response to pain or inactivity
In a sore or injured person, a movement will either contract a sore or tight muscle, stretch a sore or tight muscle, add pressure to a sore joint or stress the ligaments in a joint.
“Any of these mechanisms can cause pain and difficulty performing a physical activity,” Folden said. “Grunting in no way lessens the pain or difficulty, but it’s a sort of release — a way to respond to the load placed on the body from movement.”
Grunting when you sit, stand or bend over can also be a sign of decreased muscle strength, which is not only common after long bouts of inactivity, but can naturally occur as a person gets older. This can be accompanied by a loss of synovial fluid, which lubricates the joints (cue arthritis).
“A loss of muscle mass and flexibility can decrease a person’s ability to properly sequence the limbs and spine during sit-to-stand and bending positions, making these movements more difficult,” said David Miranda, a physical therapist in Gonzales, Louisiana.
Difficulties might include an inability to complete the movement at a proper speed. “Standing or bending too slowly would cause grunting to activate compensatory muscles and unnatural sequencing strategies,” Miranda said. You might hold your breath to force muscle contraction and enhance trunk stability, then let out a grunt once you resume breathing.
Your frame of mind can increase the odds of grunting when you move
Our collective physical and emotional health has been ravaged by the pandemic, and with the uptick in burnout and depression can come an increase in grunting when you have to do something physical, no matter how minor.
“Chronic burnout and depression can have negative physiological effects on the body, resulting in decreased tissue repair and overall health,” Miranda said, thanks to both the ongoing stress hormones pumping through your body and the inactivity that can go hand-in-hand with feeling overwhelmed or numbed out by reality.
Research suggests the harder you think a task is going to be (which is every task when you’re emotionally fried), the more likely you are to grunt or vocalize. “Feeling drained can make any physical activity seem like you’re carrying a heavy medicine ball,” Miranda said.
And if you avoid tasks because of how daunting they feel, it can create a cycle of physical and emotional heaviness — and an orchestra of grunts when you finally do follow through — that’s tough to crack.
Grunting when you move usually isn’t something to worry about
If your grunting is a learned behavior and it bothers you, conscious motivation and discipline each time you move from sit-to-stand (or other positions where grunting is a fixture) should be enough to do the trick, Miranda said.
Functional exercises can also be helpful in keeping grunts to a minimum. “In general, it’s most wise to maintain as much flexibility as possible, especially as you age,” Folden added. “This means stretching the muscles of your body from head to toe several times each week and remembering to hold static stretches for 30 seconds.”
Some of the major muscle groups and joints of the body that benefit from regular stretching are the knees and hamstrings, lower back, calves and ankles, as well as the head, neck and shoulders.
Muscle building is an important element of de-grunting your movements too: “Exercises of the core muscles, along with eccentric (lengthening) and concentric (shortening) contractions of the hip extensors (like the gluteus maximus and hamstrings) are what should be trained in this case,” Miranda said.
The best moves to add to your workouts for this include full range-of-motion squats using your bodyweight, lunges, planks and prone alternating arm and leg lifts.
If you’re older or have mobility problems, Miranda recommends sit-to-standing from a chair as slowly as possible for three to six reps at a time, and doing three sets of this move a few times a week.
When to check in with your doctor about it
If typical (for you) tasks are causing pain or are hard to perform, consider reaching out to a physical therapist — especially if the pain is consistent (happening more than once or twice a week) and increasing in intensity, or if simple stretching and rest aren’t alleviating the symptoms and you’re unable to return to your previous activity or mobility level.
“A PT can address your physical limitations by assessing your strength, range of motion, flexibility, pain and more,” Folden said. “We specialize in movement dysfunctions and can help you reach a diagnosis (if necessary) and prescribe specific exercises to address your issues.”
It might be time to check in with your doctor if you’re grunting to exert force despite taking the above exercises for a spin, yet you appear and feel healthy and are under 40 years of age, Miranda added. Also, any time you notice a significant recent decline in your ability to perform your normal activities, consulting with a physician can be helpful to turn things around.