Have you ever been about 30 minutes into your run and suddenly felt as if you could run forever? Or how about the sense of pure elation and decreased anxiety that washes over you after completing a successful long run or rowing workout during marathon training? If you've experienced these or similar situations, you may have had a runner's high.
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What Is a Runner's High?
So, what is the cause behind these intense feelings of post-workout bliss? According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, endorphins are not to blame, even though this has been the longstanding theory. In actuality, it is because of endocannabinoids that some of us experience feelings of euphoria during or after a run.
Endocannabinoids are molecules that are naturally produced by your body and are biochemically similar to cannabis, hence that "high" feeling. These substances play a key role in maintaining the homeostasis—or natural balance—of many body processes. The difference between endocannabinoids and endorphins is that endocannabinoids can cross the blood-brain barrier whereas endorphins do not. By crossing that barrier, these neuromodulators can improve overall mood and result in short-term psychological effects such as reduced anxiety and improved calmness.
Can You Get Runner’s High from Other Exercises?
Although it's most frequently linked to running, this type of "natural high" can also be achieved through other kinds of intense cardiovascular exercise, such as cycling or rowing. The endocannabinoid levels in your bloodstream are increased when you exercise. If enough of them cross the blood-brain barrier and stimulate the cannabinoid receptors in your brain, it can cause the feelings of calm or even euphoria that is referred to as "runner’s high."
It is important to note that it's rare to experience these feelings with running or any other type of exercise. It usually only comes after an extended period of intense cardio exercise, and even then it doesn't happen for everyone. There are still plenty of benefits to be had from cardio exercise, though, even if you don't experience the short-term psychoactive effects associated with runner's high.
Can You Become Addicted to Running?
Associating getting high with running might make you wonder if it's possible to become addicted to running. In a sense, yes, it's possible. People like to feel good, so chasing that runner's high to feel a certain way could be viewed as an addiction in that sense. Beyond the high, it can be addicting to run personal records, participate in road races in different geographical locations, or see positive physical changes in your body from running.
Though addiction is usually viewed as a bad thing, being addicted to running isn't always seen that way. Cardio has a lot of physical health benefits and provides a great outlet for decreasing stress and anxiety. There are worse addictions that you could have! With that being said, there can come a time when addiction does become a problem. If running becomes overvalued when compared to other important aspects of your life or you start feeling irritable and depressed with missed runs, you may have an unhealthy exercise addiction. There is a fine line between healthy and unhealthy running addictions, so it is important to check in with yourself often to make sure you aren't crossing that line.
Benefits of Running
In addition to those short-term warm and fuzzy feelings you get as part of the runner's high, there are several other key benefits that running and other types of cardio can provide over the long term.
You've most likely heard that the body repairs itself during sleep, so if you aren't getting an adequate number of hours each night, your body is unable to recover effectively. Engaging in at least 30 minutes of aerobic exercise each day has been shown to improve sleep, which results in improved concentration and mental sharpness.
Running can prevent many chronic illnesses including osteoporosis, diabetes, hypertension, and even some kinds of cancer. The CDC estimates that 110,000 deaths each year could be prevented if adults over the age of 40 increased their physical activity levels by even just a small amount.
Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, with a death related to heart problems occurring every 36 seconds. Running can prevent atherosclerosis or the formation of plaques in the blood vessels that are a contributing factor to the development of cardiac disease. Additionally, running can lower cholesterol levels, which is another major cause of cardiac problems.
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Running can decrease excess body weight over time. Though not a quick fix like some of the fad diets out there, running does provide a solid way to get into good shape and maintain a healthy body weight. This is important for overall health because obesity has been linked to many chronic health disorders including high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes.
Let's face it—we all have stress in our lives, whether that be our careers, family, or other factors. Running can provide a solid outlet for decreasing stress levels. This is where endorphins come in; those feel-good hormones are increased in the body during physical exercise and have been shown to lower stress and improve anxiety.
Improved Mental Health
Studies have shown a direct relationship between physical exercise and improved mental health. Running results in the secretion of hormones such as dopamine and serotonin that are known to improve overall mood. Though not a medical cure for depression or other mental illnesses, running can contribute to improvement in symptoms by promoting things such as better mood, decreased stress, and lessened anxiety.
Runner's high is a real phenomenon caused by neurotransmitters that cross the brain barrier during or after physical activity. It is experienced as a short-term feeling of euphoria and decreased anxiety. Because of these feelings, running can become addictive, but as long as you maintain a healthy balance between running and other aspects of your life, it isn't necessarily a bad thing.
Running is a phenomenal exercise option that provides many health benefits including disease prevention, decreased stress, and better sleep. As with any exercise, it is important to consult your healthcare provider to determine if the activity is safe for you, but running provides a great option for improved health for most people.