The Runner’s High – Why it exists, how it works, and who benefits

I run. Not fast or long, but I run. Not on my own, only with a person or two. If I’m on my own I have no one to talk to. 

Due to work commitments, my lunch-hour run was put on hold for two weeks. My mood plummeted. Thankfully, I was able to squeeze in a run on Tuesday and Wednesday of this week and plan to hit the pavement today. Not surprisingly, my mood has been elevated considerably. 

So am I addicted to the Runner’s High? I don’t know. I would have to do some serious biometric testing to truly know that, but the alteration in my mood suggests maybe. 

An article published in Science News in May, 2012 speaks to the evolution of exercise. It discusses the difference between animals evolved for endurance exercise (in this particular study they used dogs and humans) and animals not evolved for endurance exercise (the oh so wonderful house pet, the ferret). They took blood samples pre- and post-exercise to evaluate levels of endocanabinoids – the chemical released in the reward centre of the brain responsible for producing the Runner’s High. 

They found increased concentrations of the chemical in both dogs and humans, but not ferrets, following a brisk run (they didn’t specify what they defined as brisk). One of the researchers stated “These results suggest that natural selection may have been motivating higher rather than low-intensity activities in groups of mammals that evolved to engage in these types of aerobic activities”.  

Interesting, yes. So why aren’t more people running around at a high-intensity? Good question. 

The researcher states that sedentary people, those who do not engage in 30 minutes of physical activity per day, may not be able to achieve a high enough exercise intensity to receive the benefits of the endocanabinoids. There is hope, however. “He ( the researcher) is optimistic that inactive individuals can be helped to build up their exercise tolerance until they cross the threshold where they become motivated to exercise by endocanabinoids.” The challenge, we all have varying thresholds for particular chemical release and varying thresholds for pain tolerance. 

What I took away from this article? We can’t motivate people who are not regularly active with the promise of a Runner’s High right out of the gate. It’s false advertising and likely going to lead to distrust and perhaps a little bit of anger. As I prepare for facilitating another physical activity challenge this summer, I will most definitely be sharing this insight with participants. I don’t want anyone having the wrong idea when it comes to getting high the first day of exercise. 

I do know, however, that following a run, my energy, mood, and overall outlook are considerably better than pre-run. I hope to help other’s work towards achieving their own version of theImage Runner’s High this summer. 

Happy running or high-intensity exercising this weekend!



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