Running Happiness. What’s Happening In The Brain?
You’ve heard it before: regular exercise can do wonders for both your body and your mind. Physical exercise, running included, is known to release endorphins in the brain. These endorphins are hormones that block pain and encourage feelings of euphoria. Endorphins act as a natural ‘drug’ and can make a person more energetic, more alert and, yes, happier.
The endorphins can kick in during a run, after a workout or both and are generally referred to as a ‘runner’s high’. Almost every runner experiences an elevated mood after running and most will tell you that their moods tend to be gloomier when they don’t run.
We are born to run
The ‘runner’s high’ phenomenon may be nature’s way of telling us that exercising is key to staying healthy. Put simply, our bodies were made to move. Our predecessors were long-distance endurance runners out of necessity. Even now, most of us could exert ourselves at a very high level, significantly increasing our energy expenditure, even if it was for only a few seconds.
Runner’s High – is it for real?
Runner’s High or the desire for it, is one of the things that drives some people to exercise. It is a neurobiological reward that occurs during and after distance running, creating a sense of euphoria for the athlete. This natural high provides an improved sense of well-being which in turn can reduce anxiety, induces post-exercise calm and can even reduce pain.
Running happiness is backed up by studies.
One of the first studies to find that running enhances brain performance was a 1986 examination of 30 women at Purdue University. The study subjects boosted fitness levels by 17 percent and at the same time netted a 12 to 68 percent change in their capacity to process information and make intelligent decisions. This showed, without precedent for a lab setting, that running and exercise enhance a high-level cognitive function. The ladies in the study were not just more alert; they were, in effect, better thinkers too.
Another study, published in May 2013 in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, showed that physical activity is the perfect therapy for treating depression. They used mice and rats in this experiment and the animals got antidepressant-like effects from running on the wheel.
Yet another study, this time published in the Journal of Adolescent Health in 2012, showed that just 30 minutes of running 4 times a week boosted sleep quality, mood and concentration during the day.
The interesting part comes next. There is a 2007 study, published in Physiological Behavior that proved how running causes the same kind of neurochemical affects on reward pathways in the brain caused by addictive drugs.
Endorphins caused by running are addictive
Many other cardiovascular exercises other than running (like swimming and cycling) stimulate the release of endorphins. Endorphins are closely linked to addictions and were discovered by scientists who carried out research on drug additions. Research showed that the brain contains its own chemicals, more potent than most drugs like opium and morphine.
Endorphins are released during strenuous exercises. The chemicals make runners feel energized both during and after the exercise. This is the deeper explanation for ‘runner’s high.’ It also helps to motivate runners. The amount of endorphins released depends on the physical fitness of a runner. Daily runners will maximize the potential benefits of endorphins. So if you want to be happier, run more often!
“The release of endorphins has an addictive effect, and more exercise is needed to achieve the same level of euphoria over time. ” (McGovern)
What triggers happiness in our brain when we run?
Generally, we are aware of what happens to our body when we run. We build more stamina or more muscle. Everyday exercises like climbing stairs become easier. When it comes to our brain and disposition however – the connection isn’t so obvious.
Saying “endorphins are discharged in the brain” is something we might say to sound smart, without truly understanding what it means.
When you start running, your brain perceives this as a moment of stress or anxiety. Your heart rate increases and the reptilian brain supposes you are either battling an adversary or trying to escape it. To combat this stress, your body releases a protein called BDNF (Brain-derived neurotrophic factor). This BDNF has a defensive and restorative effect on your memory neurons and acts as a reset switch. This is why we often feel so calm and alert in the wake of a run, and often cheerful.
In general, our brain is often more active during physical exercise than when we are at rest.
Thus, BDNF and endorphins are the reasons running makes us feel great. And, unlike the effects of heroine, morphine or nicotine, this is actually good for us.
Running allows you to set goals
We all know that running gets you into better physical shape and makes you stronger and better able to cope with challenges that come your way. Being in better shape changes you not only physically, but also mentally. When we feel empowered, we feel happier.
Running allows you to set goals. People are much happier when they are working towards a goal. The act of setting a goal and actively working towards it provides a sense of purpose and this is what seems to trigger happiness. Reaching a goal is wonderful but the journey towards the goal is often what leads to most happiness.
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While running is an individual sport, the running community is a very social one. Runners are very supportive of each other and even interacting with other runners virtually provides a supportive group. Humans are generally happier when they feel strong social connections.
Running also improves self-esteem. Increasing endorphins, getting into shape, working towards a goal and increasing social interactions can all encourage a sense of wellbeing and increase self-esteem. And you can bet that increased self-esteem leads to a happier person overall.
Running is happiness and it all comes from the brain.