Exercise increases blood levels of endorphins, one of the body’s natural opioids
Several decades of research has shown that exercise is beneficial for physical and mental health. These studies find a consistent link between varying amounts of physical activity and reduced risk of premature death and dozens of chronic health conditions, including diabetes, hypertension, cancer and heart disease.
Over about the past two decades, mounting research shows that exercise is also highly beneficial for mental health. In fact, regular exercise is associated with lower symptoms of anxiety, depression, Parkinson’s disease and other common mental health or neurological problems.
Consistent exercise is also linked to better cognitive performance, improved mood, lower stress and higher self-esteem.
It is not yet clear what is behind these mental health boosts. We do know that exercise has a variety of effects on the brain, including raising metabolism and blood flow, promoting the formation of new brain cells – a process called neurogenesis – and increasing the release of several chemicals in the brain.
Scientists have also shown that exercise increases blood levels of endorphins, one of the body’s natural opioids. Opioids are chemicals that work in the brain and have a variety of effects, including helping to relieve pain.
Some early research in the 1980s contributed to the long-standing popular belief that this endorphin release is related to the euphoric feeling known as the runner’s high.
Many people have experienced reductions in stress, pain and anxiety and sometimes even euphoria after exercise.
The “runner’s high” has long been attributed to endorphins. These are chemicals produced naturally in the body of humans and other animals after exercise and in response to pain or stress.
However, new research shows that exercise reliably increases levels of the body’s endocannabinoids – which are molecules that work to maintain balance in the brain and body – a process called “homeostasis.”
This natural chemical boost may better explain some of the beneficial effects of exercise on brain and body.
“Endocannabinoids work on cannabinoid receptors throughout the brain and body. They cause a variety of effects, including pain relief, reduction of anxiety and stress and enhanced learning and memory,” says Hilary Marusak, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral neurosciences at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan.