Most couples don’t get along 100% of the time. But endorphins and exercise aren’t most couples; they are always happy to see one another.
We’ve talked before about the link between exercise and mood. But what are endorphins? And how can we get them flowing through our brains? And is physical activity the cure for mental illnesses like depression and anxiety?
What Are Endorphins?
You know that “high” you get after an intense workout? That’s not just a sense of accomplishment lifting your spirits; endorphins are responsible for your euphoria.
Endorphins are chemicals released by the brain during exercise. They help us manage pain and stress, and improve overall mood. In fact, scientists have discovered that endorphins share many properties with opiates, but without the harsh potential side effects. Endorphins actually bind to these opiate receptors, reducing pain and increasing feelings of euphoria, all without any medical intervention.
Furthermore, endorphins and other brain chemicals improve your overall mood, giving you a more positive outlook on your day.
The bottom line: that “runner’s high” is all in your head – right there inside your brain.
Why Endorphins Love Exercise
Exercise triggers the release of endorphins, in addition to other chemicals: dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin. These chemicals increase your overall mood and sense of well-being, helping combat mood disorders like depression and anxiety.
Many activities release endorphins. Yoga, for instance, is thought to reduce stress not only because of the soothing nature of the exercise, but because it triggers the release of endorphins. But other activities – like laughing and volunteering for others – can boost your mood, too.
However, research suggests that intense workouts cause a flood of endorphins and neurotransmitters.
Which Types of Exercise Are Best?
A recent study out of Finland found that the type and intensity of your exercise impacts the release of endorphins.
Researchers have known for years that exercise boosts feel-good chemicals in the brain. But this study looked at how exercise intensity affects those chemicals.
For the study, researchers measured participants’ endorphin levels using a positron emission tomography (PET) scan. Participant levels were measured before exercise, after moderate aerobic activity, during a rest period, and then again after a high-intensity interval training (HIIT) workout.
The study found a marked increase in endorphin levels after HIIT workouts, suggesting that the higher the intensity of your workout, the more endorphins and neurotransmitters you’ll have in your system.
However, any exercise will increase these chemicals and give you that “high” post-workout. Aerobic activity of any kind gets your blood pumping and increases oxygen to your brain, stimulating the release of endorphins.
Even moderate activity a few days a week can help improve your mood. But research suggests that frequent intense activity has an even greater impact. The harder you work, the better you’ll feel.
How Long Does the “Endorphin High” Last?
Even 20-30 minutes of moderate exercise can trigger endorphin release. Then, that “high” you experience post-workout can last for up to 24 hours according to some sources.
And don’t forget – endorphins aren’t the only players coming to this game. Other chemicals – neurotransmitters like serotonin – are there too, all working together to help you feel better, experience less pain, improve your appetite, and even help regulate your sleep cycle.
Can Exercise Cure My Depression?
The simple answer is no. Exercise cannot cure your depression or other chronic mental health issues. However, exercise and endorphins can lessen the symptoms. Physical activity and healthy eating should be one piece of a larger mental health puzzle, as determined by your medical professional.
For those dealing with mild, acute depression and anxiety that doesn’t require medical intervention, exercise and a balanced diet could be significant factors in your overall emotional health.
Depression, anxiety, and other disorders are complex. They’re a conglomerate of many factors: genetics, brain chemistry, past trauma or experiences, and many other considerations. And while exercise can’t completely cure depression and anxiety, they can help manage the overall impact on your life.
Endorphins actually change your brain chemistry, helping improve your mood overall. Therefore, if you’re struggling with depression, a high-intensity workout could significantly reduce your feelings of sadness and hopelessness.
If you’re struggling with a mental health emergency and need support, don’t wait. Contact your doctor, call 911, or contact the suicide prevention hotline at 1-800-273-8255.