Runner’s high: A legend no more

No doubt you’ve heard that intense exercise, such as running, causes a flood of endorphins – the body’s feel-good chemical.

No doubt you’ve heard that intense exercise, such as running, causes a flood of endorphins – the body’s feel-good chemical.

From running clinics to fitness magazines, this rush is referred to as “runner’s high,” and has long been treated as an established fact. But interestingly (and unbeknownst to me, a longtime runner), until now, runner’s high was nothing more than an unproven, 30-year-old hypothesis. And only now has science finally caught up to the hype.

Studies have long showed that endorphin levels in the blood increase post-run. But scientists were unable to say whether these chemicals were a by-product of the body’s stress response and whether they were present in the brain as well as the blood (which would indicate where they were released). That’s because the only way to test for endorphins in the brain was by conducting spinal taps before and after the run – not exactly feasible.

But German researchers who were using PET scans of the brain to look at athletes’ pain response found that new ways of tracking chemicals in the brain could also reveal endorphin activity. And now runner’s high can ascend from legend status to proven fact.

This confirmation means scientists can now zero in on the optimal conditions to trigger this release of endorphins.

This is great news for exercise-haters, like my sister who does it for the health benefits but insists she’ll never enjoy a workout. If scientists can pinpoint the best ways to bring on that high, then maybe even people who grit their teeth through every last second of their exercise session can learn exactly what they need to do to enjoy it. (New York Times)

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