Where Does Exercise Euphoria Come From?
My brain is bathed in a wash of sunny colour. Hums and harmonies course through my bloodstream. My whole body is tingling with well-being. It’s a full half-hour since I stopped running but my body and brain are still swimming in blissful after-effects.
I feel like this every time after a good run, which often makes me wonder:
Why does cardio feel so amazing while you’re doing it?
How come the post-exercise feeling is akin to a drug high?
What chemicals are involved in making you feel like this?
Come on break it down
Today, rather than idly having the same thoughts on repeat, I decided to do a little research into the matter. It turns out that there is an entire cascade of neurotransmitters that get fired as you exercise. And, according to this study, the impact of exercise on mood lasts a long time after you’ve done your cool-down routine and jumped into that well-deserved bath.
The neurotransmitters start to fire at different stages of a workout.
First up, it’s dopamine, kicking in within 20 minutes of light jogging. This is the first prick of pleasure, akin to having a good meal when you’re hungry.
Next up, if you keep at it, serotonin joins the party. This is your emotionally balanced, calm and stable friend — the one you always feel happy with just being around.
A little later, you can sense something big coming. Bang! It’s norepinephrine, blowing the bloody doors off! Welcome, my intense, high-energy friend. We’ve reached breakpoint in your favourite EDM track and it’s time to fly. This is what euphoria feels like.
Wooooooooooooooooooooo!!!! THE WIND IS IN MY HAIR AND I FEEL INVINCIBLE!!!!
It takes a while for norepinephrine to join the party and it doesn’t stay around for long. Annoyingly, the fitter you are, the longer it takes to reach the point where norepinephrine fires. This is a large part of why exercise can become addictive: you’re constantly chasing that high.
Nature’s favourite painkillers
Now it’s time to dig in and press on into the wind. You’re on the home stretch now and just need to keep pushing. And this is where our next swathe of friends makes all the difference.
Have you ever got into your stride on a long run and pain just seems to disappear for a while? The high has gone yet your loping stride keeps you moving forward. You’re a human metronome, beyond pain, beyond emotions, beyond anything that can touch you. You float in a pain-free place. This is the space inhabited by the little-understood group of endorphins and enkephalins involved in natural pain management.
Endogenous opioid pathways are still being mapped out, yet initial studies indicate that in addition to pain modulation, endorphins are potentially associated with reward processing. Put simply, it's likely that they interact with all the other neurotransmitters outlined above to motivate animals to move.
Reality is a lot less simple
I’ve made all this sound pretty simple and straightforward but it isn’t. As with anything related to how the brain works, the science is still unclear. This brief research session, however, has helped me find scientific explanations that fit my own lived experience. It often feels like my body is being bathed in a series of chemicals that I have no control over, so it’s nice to know that this is, in fact, what’s happening.