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Can Exercise Make Me High?

Posting Date: 09/17/2001

Q: When I am in a bad mood I can go for a run and instantly feel better. Is this a physical reaction to exercise or strictly emotional?

A: Exercise seems to have an effect on your emotional reaction to stress. It does this by altering your mood. Fit people are usually in high spirits after a lengthy exercise, sometimes to the point of elation or joy. This feeling is associated with the presence of endorphins, which are released by the pituitary gland in the brain.

The word "endorphin" is a combination of "endo" and "morphine" -- meaning endogenously produced morphine, or internally produced painkiller. Endorphins are the body's natural pain reliever. It may be that the brain interprets exercise as a form of "pain" or it may be that the rise in fatty acids caused by long, gentle exercise acidifies the blood, which triggers the release of endorphins.

In any case, you can get from exercise a natural high, similar to a drug high but with none of the bad side effects. People who do long, continuous, gentle exercise enjoy the most effective stress therapy known to man.

How long and how hard do you have to exercise to get the endorphin high?
Most researchers have found that moderate-intensity exercise lasting at least 20 to 30 minutes produces the greatest increase of blood endorphins. In stationary bicycle studies, subjects pedaled for eight minutes at 25 percent of their maximum exercise capacity followed by eight minutes at 50 percent, and then by eight minutes at 75 percent.

The level of endorphins in the blood did not change during the 25 percent and 50 percent bouts. But it rose significantly during the 75 percent period. Then, ironically, if the subjects continued to exercise to exhaustion, the endorphin level dropped dramatically. It's as if the body were saying, "If you're going to exercise this hard, you must be in trouble. Maybe a bear is chasing you. Whatever it is, this is no time to be high!"

This seems to provide yet another reason to exercise slowly and aerobically. During high-stress situations -- running too fast -- your body can't afford to have your brain tripping off into fantasyland.

So, to get your natural high -- 20 to 30 minutes of exercise at 60 to 80 percent maximum seems to produce the best results, but longer duration and lower intensity will also work. The only thing that doesn't work is short, high-intensity workouts.

Adapted from The Fit or Fat Woman by Covert Bailey and Lea Bishop. Copyright 1989 by Covert Bailey and Lea Bishop, published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.