Running for Endorphins

Exercise can make you feel so sore. So, how can it make you feel so good?

Some people really hate working out. But, if you’re reading this, you probably enjoy it. And, you may be wondering why.

There are a lot of complex psychological reasons that working out makes us feel good. For many of us it’s a social activity. It may be an opportunity to be outside. It may be a good way to vent pent up energy or stress. But, biologically, there’s a simpler explanation. That explanation is Endorphins.

Here, we’ll talk about what endorphins are, how they work, how they are related to exercise, and what routines release the most of them.

An Introduction to Hormones and Neurotransmitters

Before we talk about endorphins, let’s briefly talk about hormones. Hormones are chemical messengers that your body releases in response to certain stimuli. These hormones have a physical impact but they also (usually) have a noticeable emotional impact.

Hormones are similar to but not identical to another form of chemical messenger called “neurotransmitters.” In fact, there’s a lot of overlap. If you dive into the links provided in this article, you’ll see endorphins classed as either a hormone or a neurotransmitter but I tend to classify it as a hormone, so that’s how I’ll refer to it in this article.

We won’t get much further into neurotransmitters today but if you continue learning about exercise, you’ll likely run into them. They play a vital role in how your muscles work.

Endorphin Neurotransmitter

Meet Endorphins

Endorphins are a class of hormone that have a similar effect on the body. That effect, to be specific, is euphoria.

Endorphins are often released by the body in response to traumatic or painful stimuli. Some scientists believe that this is a system of pain management that your body employs so that you can power through physically taxing experiences.

What are some of those experiences? Sex, for one, certain foods for one, pain is another, and – of course, working out. We’ll talk more about that in a moment. But if you’ve heard people talk about – or if you’ve experienced for yourself – a “runner’s high,” this is the euphoria that can be caused by exercise-related endorphins.

A final note on endorphins in general before we talk about endorphins and exercise. Endorphins can be literally addictive. In fact, researchers often relate endorphins to drugs and they work in similar reward pathways in your brain. It makes a lot of sense: when you do things that make you feel good, you want to keep doing them. 

The dark side is that the more endorphins your body is flooded with the more often, the more difficult it is for those endorphins to do their jobs and the more your brain will crave that activity. It happens with foods and alcohol but it can also happen with activities. This is called “process addiction” or “behavioral addiction.”

Becoming dangerously addicted to working out isn’t common but it’s also not unheard of, particularly among men. This is also influenced by other societal factors like feeling a need to be “hot” or “strong” or “shredded.” But that may be an article for another day.

neurotransmitters

Exercise and Endorphins

Now that we know everything that we need to know about endorphins, it’s time to talk about endorphins and exercise. 

First we’ll talk about why exercise releases endorphins and the larger impact that this can have on your life. In the next section we’ll talk about which workouts give you the most endorphins for your trouble.

Why Exercise Releases Endorphins

Exercise releases endorphins for two main reasons. One of them is physiological and makes a lot of sense. The other is psychological and is an amusing example of how our brain doesn’t know as much as we often think it does.

The first main reason that exercise releases endorphins is that it hurts. If you do it right, it hurts. If you do it wrong, it hurts. The endorphins that are released in response help to manage that pain so that we can work harder and longer.

The second major reason that exercise releases endorphins is that your brain and body doesn’t know the difference between working out and fighting for your life. When you work out, one of the chemicals that your body releases is adrenaline. That’s the same chemical messenger that your body releases when you’re frightened. That’s why doing a tough workout right before bed can make it harder to fall asleep.

How to Use those Endorphins

You can actively use endorphins from your workouts in two main ways. That is, once we talk about which workouts release the most endorphins.

The first major way to use endorphins is to help push yourself. The endorphins released during a workout make it easier to keep working out. Once you understand how workouts make you feel, you can use them to get yourself a longer, harder, more impactful workout.

The second way that you can use endorphins is for your mental health. That’s right, working out is great for your physical health but it’s also great for your mental health. In our discussion of endorphins, I may have been a little harsh on them with all of that addiction talk. While some people do get into trouble with workout addiction, working out is actually recommended to ease symptoms of conditions like depression.

Exercise Endorphins

Exercises for Endorphins

The moment we’ve all been waiting for! All exercises can release endorphins, particularly if you do them long enough and hard enough to feel the burn. However, these workouts give you the most endorphins for your trouble.

Jogging and Running

If you get a good jog and a good run, you can feel the burn and that triggers endorphin release. However, there’s more to these activities that make them an even better feel-good workout.

Jogging and running are what are called “aerobic” activities, as opposed to “anaerobic” activities like weight lifting. All that that means is that it really gets the blood pumping and your breath going.

During aerobic exercises, your body takes in more air, which means more oxygen. Then, your increased heart rate works to pump that oxygen to your muscles and to your brain. That makes you feel even better.

That’s all true whether you’re outside or at a treadmill at the gym. However, if you can run outside, that’s even better. Working out in fresh air and sunlight is better for your mood than working out in the gym all the time.

High Intensity Interval Training

Weightlifting releases some endorphins, as we’ve discussed. However, it’s not one of the best workouts for endorphins. That doesn’t mean that you can’t have your muscle building and toning and get the benefits of endorphins.

A recent study has shown that High Intensity Interval Training brings significant endorphin release. There are a lot of other health benefits to this method of exercising that alternates high-intensity and more moderate-intensity in short bursts. It’s also a great way to get a surprisingly good workout in a surprisingly short amount of time.

Think Rhythm and Duration

Another way that you can get more endorphins from your bodybuilding workout has to do with changing your focus. Going for high weight and lower reps is a great way to build muscle and it can result in an equally short burst of high endorphins.

However, aiming for a more moderate weight over more reps and focusing on form, rhythm, and breath has a lot of benefits. First and foremost is a more sustained endorphin release. This can also help your muscle memory. It’s also a great way to learn new exercises.

The Takeaway

Endorphins are swell, and exercise is one of the best ways to get them. By tailoring your workout to take advantage of endorphins, you can work out longer and harder for the benefit of your physical and mental health.