The science behind Runner’s High; Why we feel good after we exercise

Runners high

There’s a feeling you can get after a really good workout whether it be from the gym, a run or horse-riding when suddenly you feel energized like you can take on the world, you mind is clearer and you have some sort of inner calm. After all even when the weather is terrible and you have had a stressful day, millions of people will still head out the door to do some sort of exercise in fact 53% say they feel good about themselves after they exercise. Furthermore there are even studies stating that endurance sports have a role to play in decreasing pain levels.

62% of adults and 68% of teens find doing some sort of exercise or going for a walk as an extremely effective way of managing their stress. Despite this, around 37% of the people that took part in the survey by Stress America that I have just quoted, only managed to exercise once a week if at all. The important thing to take not that is whether you actually do it or not the majority of people do appreciate the benefit but why is that? Why do people become addicted or hooked on exercise.


As usual I am going to take you back to the class room quickly to explore the science. The cause of the euphoric highs that you can feel after exercise stem from neurotransmitters. Which simply put transport chemicals within your brain relaying information between your nerve cells. They can help control everything in your body from your mood, weight, concentration and even to your quality of sleep. Physical exercise is known to increase the production of neurotransmitters including serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine all of which can reduce depression, increase self-esteem.


Endorphins are release in response to pain and stress furthermore they are often the chemicals that help us over come pain. Endorphins have been linked to all sorts of different things including morphine, lavender, dark chocolate, chilli and of course exercise and running. The university of Bonn and TUM noted that after a 2-hour run there was a increase in the production endorphins which correlated to an increase in the mood, energy and happiness of the runners. Furthermore the results also showed that opiate receptors were blocked. This gives good evidence that prolonged exercise can increase the body’s natural opioids (pain killing chemicals) as well as give you increased feelings of euphoria and happiness. The endorphins produced through prolonged exercise in this case running is speculated to supress the body’s reaction to pain which may give us an insight to why people are able to do iron-man’s and other ultra distance events. However further research needs to be carried out to confirm this. The university of California also reported similar effects after running and cycling for just under an hour. There is less research but similar studies have been conducted with swimmers.


Serotonin is the chemical that gives you the feeling of self-wealth or importance and therefore on the other end of the scale it can cause you to feel lonely or depressed. It is also the chemical that is focused on the most when developing antidepressants. Exercise has been linked to the production of serotonin and the increase in the firing rate of serotonin. Whether it is the motor activity from doing the physical exercise thats  stimulates the increase levels of serotonin it is not certain, but it is evident that aerobic exercise does cause an increase mood and increase the feeling of self wealth and importance as a result. Young (2007)


Dopamine is unique as it has the ability to be both an inhibitory and excitatory neurotransmitter and helps control the reward, emotion and pleasure centres in the brain. Some of its functions include movement, memory, pleasure, behaviour, attention, sleep, mood and learning, It may or may not surprise you that a lot of research into dopamine has stemmed from the effect that illicit drugs has on people including heroin and cocaine. It has been proven that physical activity can actually increase the amount of dopamine in the body similar to that of heroin to the point where a study in rats proved that through regular exercise they good stimulate the same positive effects that they craved through heroin without actually taking the drug! Smith &Pitts (2012)

Exercise as a treatment for depression

Despite all the science and the research showing the positive effects and how you can feel better from exercise, is it really powerful enough to help people with clinical depression. Well YES, both Oliveria (2005) and Hollenberg et al (2003) have stated that exercise base programmes to help treat depression were more effective than drug and psicotherapy alternatives. A lot of research has been conducted with impressive results in decreasing depression especially in the elderly community. Branco et al (2015) While many individuals with depression report to be less physical activity as a result of their condition, increased levels of physical activity do correlate with a decrease in intensity of the depression. Lampinen et al (2000).

The good news for many is that research states the highest effects on creating a positive mood from exercise was actually in acute bouts of low or moderate exercise. In other words research by Ekkekakis et al., 2011; Reed and Ones, (2006) proves that your more likely to get higher moods when you do moderate or low intense exercise rather than higher intensity as well as doing it randomly compared to a regular basis. Obviously if you do exercise more then your likelihood of getting the ‘high’ after is more frequent. There also have been studies to show that increased physical activity can increase a positive affect on your day-to-day life not just your mood. Walters et al (2013)


Hacking Into your happy chemicals: Dopamine, serotonin, endorphins & Oxytocin (2014) The Utopian Life.

University of Bonn. “Runners’ High Demonstrated: Brain Imaging Shows Release Of Endorphins In Brain.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 6 March 2008.

Branco, J.C, Jansen, K, Sobrinho, J.T., Carrapatoso, S, Spessato, B, Carvalho, J, Mota, J, & Silva, R. (2015). Physical benefits and reduction of depressive symptoms among the elderly: Results from the Portuguese “National Walking Program”. Ciência & Saúde Coletiva, 20(3), 789-795.

Walter K, von Haaren B, Löffler S, Härtel S, Jansen C-P, Werner C, Stumpp J, Bös K and Hey S (2013) Acute and medium term effects of a 10-week running intervention on mood state in apprentices. Front. Psychol. 4:411. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00411

Reed, J., and Buck, S. (2009). The effect of regular aerobic exercise on positive activated affect: a meta-analysis. Psychol. Sport Exerc. 10, 581–594. doi: 10.1016/j.psychsport.2009.05.009

Reed, J., and Ones, D. S. (2006). The effect of acute aerobic exercise on positive activated affect: a meta-analysis. Psychol. Sport Exerc. 7, 477–514. doi: 10.1016/j.psychsport.2005.11.003

Ekkekakis, P., Parfitt, G., and Petruzzello, S. J. (2011). The pleasure and displeasure people feel when they exercise at different intensities. Sports Med. 41, 641–671. doi: 10.2165/11590680-000000000-00000

Oliveira, A. C. B. (2005). Estudo comparativo dos efeitos da atividade física com os da terapêutica medicamentosa em idosos com depressão maior. Tese de Doutorado, Faculdade de Medicina, Universidade de São Paulo, São Paulo. Recuperado em 2016-03-05, de 

Hollenberg, M., Haight, T, Tager, IB (2003) Depression decreases cardiorespiratory fitness in older women. Journal of Clinical Epidemiology , Volume 56 , Issue 11 , 1111 – 1117

Smith, M. A., & Pitts, E. G. (2012). Wheel Running Decreases the Positive Reinforcing Effects of Heroin. Pharmacological Reports : PR64(4), 960–964.


Young, S. N. (2007). How to increase serotonin in the human brain without drugs. Journal of Psychiatry & Neuroscience : JPN32(6), 394–399.

Lampinen P, Heikkinen RL, Ruoppila I. Changes in intensity of physical exercise as predictors of depressive symptoms among older adults: an eight-year follow-up. Prev Med 2000; 30(5):371-380.

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