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Ask Healthy Living: Why Don't I Get A Runner's High?

03/06/2014 08:45 am ET | Updated Jun 10, 2014
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I thought exercise was supposed to make me feel awesome, but I really don't like it all that much. What gives?

We think it's safe to say we'd all love to be that weirdo lucky duck who hops on a treadmill and heads toward bliss. But more often than not, we're left chasing that elusive runner's high, one plodding step at a time. Given all the well-documented, feel-good benefits of exercise, why are so many of us left dreading our next sweat session?

The first clue lies in exercise selection. Ask yourself how much you really enjoy the physical activity you're doing, because feeling like you're forced to exercise might negate its benefits. In recent research, rats who were forced to run on treadmills were more anxious than rats who were allowed to run on their wheels whenever they felt like it. The voluntary runners also showed less depression and helplessness, YouBeauty.com reported. Both groups reaped physical benefits -- they burned calories and their fitness levels increased -- but at significant mental cost.

Animal studies don't necessarily translate directly to the human world, but it's easy to imagine that hating every second of a 45-minute elliptical workout would only make you feel crummy about it afterward. Take some time to consider your regular routine -- and alternatives. Not everyone is a marathon runner, just like not everyone is a yogi, and your personality can actually offer some insight into which exercise methods you like and dislike.

If you've found a routine you do enjoy and you're still not reaching that high, you may not be spending enough time sweating it out. High-intensity, ultra-efficient routines are great for those of us in a time-crunch, but studies show that slightly longer durations are better tailored to eliciting euphoria. "From the available research, it appears that continuous (typically 30 minutes or more), sustained, rhythmic, repetitive exercise of various types (such as running, rowing, cycling, etc.) can produce these beneficial psychological outcomes, such as increased feelings of happiness," Jessica Matthews, MS, assistant professor of health and exercise science at Miramar College in San Diego and a certified personal trainer and health coach, tells HuffPost Healthy Living in an email.

There are a few theories as to why, all of which center around chemicals released in the brain. The longest-standing line of thinking was that exercise flooded the brain with feel-good chemicals called endorphins, which "bind to opiate receptors in specific areas of the brain for almost a morphine-like effect," says Matthews. But more recent research has suggested other chemicals may play a greater role. Prolonged workouts seem to lead to increases in "brain chemicals that are nature's versions of drugs like marijuana or heroin," Dr. David Sack wrote in a HuffPost blog.

One group of those brain drugs is the endocannabinoids (yes, cannabinoid as in cannabis). In a 2003 study, male college students were asked to work out on treadmills and stationary bikes for 50 minutes. Researchers found that their endocannabinoid systems were activated, and posited that this reaction may help to explain exercise's painkilling properties and other brain benefits.

Another is opioids (yes, like opium). A small 2008 study found natural opioid production correlated with long-distance running (the runners ran for two hours!) and feelings of euphoria afterward. There may also be a release of other chemicals, called neurotransmitters, including norepinephrine, dopamine and serotonin that can increase feelings of euphoria, says Matthews.

While a high might seem appealing, and can certainly make exercise feel easier, it's not a requirement. "There are so many research-supported physiological and psychological benefits associated with physical activity of all different types -- from improved mood and increased energy to increased bone mineral density and decreased body fat percentage -- which means you can reap the plethora of benefits of exercise no matter [the] form of physical activity it is that you choose," says Matthews. "From yoga and Tai Chi to swimming and dancing, there is no shortage of ways to be physically active. Start by taking the time to experiment with and ultimately discover what form of exercise it is that you enjoy, as finding activities that resonate with you is what will enable you to make a positive, lasting behavior change."

And it doesn't always have to be a big time commitment, either. Just 10 minutes of exercise can improve focus and concentration. For the people who still aren't feeling it, consider this: Even when working out stresses you out, the process of getting physically active will still reduce stress.

At the end of the day, it's not necessarily a good or a bad thing to find that high. Just know that you don't have to chase it -- unless you really love to run.

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