Why exercise makes us happy


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You know that happy feeling you get during or after a tough workout? Some people claim to experience powerful feelings of euphoria, while others feel calm and relaxed – as if they went to a spa. Athletes get “in the zone.” Runner’s call it a “high.” Whatever level of happy it is, most people agree that something happens to their mood when they work up a sweat. And it feels good.

Runner’s high has been eluding scientists since the ’70s. There wasn’t a breakthrough in the phenomenon until 2008, when (according to the New York Times) researchers in Germany, using advances in neuroscience, reported that running does elicit a flood of endorphins in the brain. The endorphins are associated with mood changes, and the more endorphins a runner’s body pumps out, the greater the effect.

Going further down the rabbit hole

A new study in the Journal of Experimental Biology shows that a high-intensity workout triggers the release of neurotransmitters known as endocannabinoids that ease pain, cause pleasure, and create a desire for more exercise in people and dogs.

“This suggests that natural selection used the endocanabinoid system to motivate endurance exercise in humans and other animals that walk and run over long distances,” explains David Raichlen from the University of Arizona, in a release.

Runner’s high was instilled in us through evolution. Mammals had to travel great distances for food and water and to escape predators. The more pleasurable the aerobic experience, the more chance of survival.

“These results suggest that natural selection may have been motivating higher rather than low-intensity activities in groups of mammals that evolved to engage in these types of aerobic activities.”

Spaced out

In addition to the feeling of euphoria, many athletes have reportedly experienced time dilation – which Psychology Today defines as “the feeling that time is slowing down to a miniscule pace — which often accompanies that ‘in-the-zone’ feeling.”

Want to see if you are transcending time space on your next run? Check out Einstein’s Pedometer. It’s a free app for your iPhone or iPad based on Einstein’s theory of relativity that when you move faster, time slows. Einstein’s Pedometer is supposed to track relativistic time dilation while you run. The app uses your phone’s GPS to track your speed and distance, and then plugs the data into the Lorentz Transformation equations (yea, we had to look that up, too), which are then used to determine the total amount of time dilation that occurs during your run. Cosmic, man!