If you’ve ever completed a long run and felt like you could keep going a few more miles, you may have experienced a runner’s high.
This sense of euphoria helps athletes feel relaxed and calm. It can also help shield against pain from the long bout of exercise, at least temporarily.
But not everyone who runs or exercises will feel this brief moment of bliss.
Benefits of Regular Exercise
So do we need to be concerned that we are exercising too much? For most of us, the answer is no.
Typically, people who don’t exercise much find exercise hard work at the beginning, and it is only after your strength, stamina, and skill develops that you start feeling good during and after exercise.
Even for those who have developed a regular exercise routine, look forward to working out, and feel great during and after exercise, the majority of people don’t get to the point where exercising too much is a concern.
There is wide variation on how much pleasure people derive from exercise, people’s predisposition to addiction, and people’s individual neurological makeup, and it has been noted by neuroscientists that one of the main reasons that people with the intention of increasing exercise eventually quit is a lack of enjoyment.
If anything, most of us would benefit from exercising more and increasing our enjoyment of exercise to reinforce a regular exercise routine.
Most people do not need to worry about getting addicted to exercise and should try to exercise regularly.
Exercise improves your body’s functioning in many different ways and offers many benefits such as:
- Exercise gives you energy and increases your resistance to fatigue, meaning that although your body is working harder when you exercise, over time, you feel less tired than you did before you started working out.
- Exercise makes your muscles stronger, improving your ability to do many different active tasks, and increasing your independence, as you are less likely to need help with physical tasks.
- Exercise makes you more flexible, increasing the variety of physical activities you can do, whether or not they are directly related to exercise.
- Exercise improves your endurance, meaning you can continue to be physically active for longer periods of time than you can when you don’t exercise, without straining yourself or feeling uncomfortable.
- Exercise makes your body more efficient at physical tasks, meaning you can do them with less effort, and feel less tired afterward, than if you don’t regularly exercise.
- Exercise reduces your risk of injuries, such as lower-back problems.
- Exercise helps you to manage your weight and can help you to lose weight if you are overweight.
- Exercise decreases your risk of cardiovascular disease.
- Exercise reduces your risk of type 2 (adult-onset) diabetes mellitus.
- Exercise lowers your risk of depression and can help manage the symptoms of depression for those who have it.
- Exercise may decrease the effects of aging through improved functioning during regular tasks of everyday life.
- Exercise can help people overcome other addictions.
- Exercise helps you to get a good night’s sleep and can help with sleep disorders.
So, you may be wondering, with such a litany of benefits, what could be the problem with exercise? It sounds like the more the better, and you can’t go wrong.
The reason for runner’s high is unknown, but an evolutionary theory regarding this experience suggestsTrusted Source that it is a bodily function to increase a person’s chances of survival.
In prehistoric times, to get out of a dangerous situation, it was necessary for a person to escape quickly. It is possible that the positive sensation of runner’s high helped humans run longer and faster while masking the pain of exhaustion.
The trigger of a runner’s high is the brain releasing certain chemicals and hormones. Some of these chemicals include:
The brain produces endorphins that act as opioid receptorsTrusted Source. The release of endorphins has many positive effects on the body, including:
- reduction in pain
- boost in happiness and pleasure
- reduction in stress and anxiety
- reduction in symptoms of depression
Researchers exploring runner’s high in mice concluded that running activated their brain’s endocannabinoid system. Activation of the endocannabinoid system also occurs when people consume cannabis.
Cannabis contains tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which is responsible for the “high” that people can experience when consuming the drug. The THC activates the endocannabinoid system.
The research suggests that this system may also play a part in creating the sensation of runner’s high. However, more research is necessary to determine whether the same system becomes activated in humans.
Older researchTrusted Source suggests that exercise activates the same reward pathways in the brain that become activated in people who experience drug use disorders. The effects on mood are due to an increase in the hormone dopamine in the pathways.
Due to this similar activation, novel research is also exploring the potential of using running as an additional therapeutic tool for individuals who may be experiencing drug or alcohol use disorders.
Some anecdotal evidence indicates that it is possible to become addicted to the sensation of runner’s high. If this occurs, a person may attempt to keep achieving the runner’s high by running faster or for longer periods.
Leptin is a hormone that regulates feelings of hunger and satiety. Some researchTrusted Source suggests that leptin may also play a part in the sensation of runner’s high.
When the researchers looked at mice, they noted that those with reduced levels of leptin ran more miles on a running wheel than those with average leptin levels.
One of the conclusions of this study is that mice with less leptin were more likely to experience the sensation of runner’s high.
The researchers link these findings back to evolutionary theory. They suggest that when leptin levels are low, this increases a person’s motivation to run to pursue food. This increase in motivation may make it easier for a person to experience runner’s high.
More research is necessary to explore how leptin may affect runner’s high in humans.
The Science Behind Runner’s High
Scientists have studied the runner’s high, in order to understand the opioidergic mechanisms of the runner’s high in the human brain, and to identify the relationship of these drug-like chemicals, which occur naturally in the body, to the euphoria or high that people experience when they engage in intense exercise.
Researchers have found a relationship between the number of opioids in the brain and the athletes’ mood. The level of euphoria was significantly increased after exercise. The findings of this research support the “opioid theory” of the runner’s high and suggest region-specific effects in frontolimbic brain areas that are involved in the processing of emotional states and mood.
Research indicates that the brains of people who exercise excessively get exposed to high amounts of drug-like opioids, creating an intense high. The desire to experience the feeling again drives them to continue to exercise in excess.
Signs of an Exercise Addiction
It is fine to take pleasure in exercise. In fact, it is encouraged. Most of the time, this will not be harmful, and it will do you a lot of good. It is also fine for you to think about how you can improve your technique, or excel in whatever form of exercise or sport you are engaging in.
Where it becomes problematic to gain pleasure from exercise is when it becomes your main focus in life.
If you enjoy exercise, you should enjoy other aspects of life as well. If exercise is the only activity you enjoy—with the exception of other addictive activities, such as sex, eating, work, TV, and of course, alcohol and other drugs—you may be focusing too much on the high you get from exercise to the detriment of other areas of life.
Are you enjoying a full social and/or family life? If all of the people you enjoy spending time with are your exercise buddies, you may be taking it too far. This is particularly the case if you know that you have problems in your primary relationships, for example, with your parents, your partner, or your children, but you aren’t addressing these problems because you are focusing too much on escaping into exercise.
If you’re concerned about the possibility of having an exercise addiction, ask yourself the following questions:
- Do you feel you can’t cope without the high you experience from working out?
- If you need to stop exercising, either because you are busy with other priorities, or because of a physical illness or injury, do you feel depressed or anxious?
Perhaps it might be important to note that there are other conditions that can lead to too much exercise. Excessive exercise can also be frequently seen in those with eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia and can co-occur with food addiction.
Coping with Exercise Addiction
If you think you might have an exercise addiction, keep a record of how much exercise you do, and when, as well as your mood before and after exercising, and when you are unable to exercise.
If, after a week or so, you are noticing a pattern of using exercise for a runner’s high that you don’t think you can cope without, talk to your doctor and relay your concerns outlined in the mood and exercise diary.
Your doctor can refer you to a mental health professional, who can help you to get your exercise under control, and help you to find joy in other aspects of life.
Runner’s high is a pleasurable sensation that a person experiences when engaging in extended periods of aerobic exercise. Some people may experience it sooner after starting to exercise than others.
Activation of the endocannabinoid system and certain hormones, such as endorphins and leptins, may play a part in creating the sensation of runner’s high.
Running carries many other health benefits, including weight loss, a decreased risk of mortality from certain illnesses, and improved mental health.
Importance of Physical Activity. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.
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