By Vicki Santillano, DivineCaroline
“Here’s to feeling good all the time,” declares Kramer in one of my favorite episodes of Seinfeld. He’s smoking and drinking when he says it, but for those of us on a more positive health path, there are plenty of other ways to do just that (or at least get close). Consider endorphins, the chemicals that transmit information from one cell to another in the central nervous system and produce feelings of euphoria, intimacy, happiness, and overall well-being. Stress and pain are primarily what activate their release, because it’s when we experience those feelings that we need a mood boost most. However, endorphin production is not limited to situations like worrying about a work performance review or being chased by a bear. There are much more enjoyable ways to reap the benefits of a surge of feel-good chemicals.
Exercise is a surefire way to beat a case of the blues. Some even claim that exercising extra-hard will produce “runner’s high,” a euphoric state supposedly achieved through intense physical activity. Actually, the only reason I started jogging a few years ago was to see if this really exists, and while I certainly felt happier afterward, I couldn’t tell if it was from a rush of endorphins or simply from my relief that the run was over.
Up until recently, the reality of runner’s high was highly disputed in the scientific community. The idea that exercising produces an endorphin rush makes sense, since it puts the body under physical stress (muscles straining, heart pumping, etc.). But pinpointing whether that happens in the brain, and therefore affects mood, is much harder to do without harming the humans being tested. Luckily, improving technology makes such studies easier. In fact, a 2008 study published in Cerebral Cortex used a PET scanner on athletes’ brains both at rest and right after a two-hour run. Researchers found not only a significant increase in endorphins, but also that the endorphins attached to receptors in parts of the brain are responsible for emotions. Their discovery suggests a correlation between intense exercise and elevated mood levels.
Not a runner? Don’t get discouraged—any kind of moderate to intense exercise, like heavy weight lifting or interval aerobics, can create the same rush. But if you push your body to the point of serious pain, it can have the opposite effect.