You may have experienced it – the relaxing feeling after a good run. The experience is usually attributed to an outbreak of endorphins released during exercise. But is it an endorphin rush you feel or something else?
What happens to your body and brain during a run
When you start to run, your body goes through a transition: Your breathing may become heavy, and you may notice that your heart rate becomes faster when your heart pumps more challenging to move oxygen-rich blood to your muscles and brain.
When you walk or run, your body releases hormones called endorphins. After intense training, these chemicals are behind “a runner’s high,” a short-lived, euphoric state. Studies have revealed that runner’s high is quite rare, and most athletes have never experienced it. Many distance runners feel exhausted or even nauseous at the end of a long run, not happy.
Although endorphins help prevent muscles from feeling pain, it is unlikely to contribute to a euphoric feeling or any mood swings at all. Research shows that endorphins do not cross the blood-brain barrier.
Exercise increases the level of endocannabinoids. The relaxed feeling after a run can be due to substances similar to cannabis but produced naturally by the body. Unlike endorphins, endocannabinoids can move quickly through the cellular barrier separating blood flow from the brain. These mood-enhancing neuromodulators promote short-term psychoactive effects such as reduced anxiety and a sense of calm.
Long-term mental benefits of exercise
The mental benefits do not stop when you finish the run – regular cardiovascular exercise can grow new blood vessels to nourish the brain. Exercise can also produce new brain cells in specific places through neurogenesis, leading to an overall improvement in brain performance.
The hippocampus increases the volume of the brain of regular trainers. Exercise has a dramatic antidepressant effect. It dulls the brain’s response to physical and emotional stress. Other mental benefits include:
- Improved working memory and focus
- Better ability to change tasks
- High spirits
By making running or jogging (or aerobic exercise) a regular part of your routine, you can earn more than just physical gains over time. Regular exercise is the best thing you can do to slow down the cognitive decline that comes with normal aging.