Getting High on Exercise

Getting High on Exercise

Ever noticed those runners pounding the pavement when it's pouring rain, or the cyclists slogging it up hills when it’s plant-wiltingly hot? These folks aren't Olympic athletes. They're not exercising for fame or glory or lucrative sponsorships. So why do they do it?

It’s simple: They love it. In fact, you might say they’re almost addicted. I know just how they feel. I used to be a big-time in-line skater, and I didn't just enjoy it—I craved it. I'd head out for a long skate and by the second or third mile, not only would I have a big goofy smile plastered across my face, but anything that was bugging me or stressing me had been lulled into extinction by the rhythm of my skate strokes.

I still skate, but I've discovered other loves as well (including cycling, hiking and Nordic walking). No matter which one I choose on a given day, it always leaves me feeling calm, confident and downright joyful.

Why does exercise make us happy? "Sustained aerobic exercise, whether it’s running, biking, or even Zumba-ing, can cause a release of brain chemicals called endorphins in the emotion- and mood-controlling regions of your brain," says Michael Roizen, MD. "Endorphins are your body’s natural form of opium. They make you feel really happy and feel less pain."

You can get that “happiness high” too. Here’s how:

Step 1: Do something you love
That sounds simple, but it can take time, patience and a bit of trial and error. If you try running and don't like it, don't force yourself to keep lacing up your running shoes. Try cycling or dancing instead. "Think back to the activities you enjoyed as a kid," says NASM Elite Trainer Serena Rain. Did you swim like a fish when you were little? Hit the pool. Nature lover? Break out your hiking shoes. Keep experimenting until you find something you actually look forward to doing. (After all, those all-weather cyclists out there aren't secretly wishing they were kickboxing.)

And don't just consider the old standbys. There are loads of deliriously fun new classes to try out and get hooked on, like Soul Cycle, TRX, Cross-Fit, the gazillion different barre classes out there—you get the picture. And who knows? Like me, you might even fall in love more than once. (Don't tell my husband.)

Step 2: Go long or hard
To experience the bliss, you've got to go beyond a stroll around the block. Noticeable endorphin boosts will come either from working out for a prolonged period (think 15 minutes or more) or at a pretty high intensity, according to research.

Once you cultivate an exercise habit you love, you’ll realize you actually miss it when you skip it. If I go more than a day or two without exercising, I start to feel sluggish and tired, and I don’t sleep as well. What's more, I sorely miss the precious “me” time that comes along with whatever workout I treat myself to on a given day.

I guarantee that after you've experience your first exercise “high," you’ll want to get that feeling again and again. The next time your neighbor announces from the comfort of her air-conditioned sunroom that she saw "another crazy person out running this morning," you might just have to admit it was you.

Medically reviewed in December 2019.

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