What Causes Runner's High?
Runner's High May Be Behind Exercise's Evolution
That happy feeling you get after aerobic exercise may hard-wired proof that humans were born to run, new research says.
By Annie Hauser
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THURSDAY, March 22, 2012 —If you get a feeling of euphoria after pounding the pavement for a few miles or sweating it out during an indoor cycling class, that might have more to do with evolution than with your heart-pumping workout playlist. (Although, how can younotfeel happy when you’re listening to Beyoncé?)
New research published in the found that runner’s high may have an intrinsic benefit. In the study, University of Arizona researcher David Raichlen, PhD, explains that our hunter-gatherer ancestors were also long-distance endurance athletes, so that positive feeling we get today after aerobic exercise may be nothing more than an millennia-old impetus to exercise.
“Aerobic activity has played a role in the evolution of lots of different systems in the human body, which may explain why aerobic exercise seems to be so good for us,” Raichlen said in a . “So we got interested in the brain as a way to look at whether evolution generated exercise behaviors in humans through motivation pathways.”
In laymen’s terms, that means the researchers set out to determine whether exercise makes us feel goodbecauseour brains know it is good for us. To answer this question, researchers compared the exercise-induced endocannabinoids, otherwise known as those neurotransmitters that generate exercise’s positive feelings, in two cursorial mammals with body’s designed for endurance exercise, humans and dogs, and one mammal not meant for long-distance activity, ferrets.
After training local dogs and pet ferrets to run on treadmills, researchers compared blood samples from the animals and human participants before and after exercise. Researchers found that the endocannabinoid levels in the blood of the dogs and humans skyrocketed after intense activity while the ferrets produced no response. This suggests that the feeling of runner’s high only exists in animals who have an evolutionary need for aerobic exercise.
If you’re wondering why you’ve never felt the thrill of a session at the gym, Raichlan explained in the same release that a certain level of exercise intensity is required to feel the high. “Inactive people may not be fit enough to hit the exercise intensity that leads to this sort of rewarding sensation,” he said, though it is certainly possible for inactive individuals to build up their exercise tolerance enough that they will eventually feel the mood boost.
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