Can You Get High From Working Out?

The Exercise or Runner's High

Models pose as couple getting high on exercise
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We all know getting and staying healthy through exercise can feel good, but sometimes it can feel so good that people who exercise might wonder, can you get high from working out? And if you can actually get high on exercise, like you can from drugs, is it good for you or bad for you?

The short answer is that yes, you can get high from exercise. And while the feeling of getting high itself is not harmful, like with drugs, you can be harmed while under the influence of this high feeling, as you may be less aware of potential and real harms to your body.

There is also a risk of getting addicted to the high you get from exercise, which can also be harmful.

The Benefits of Exercise

So do we need to be concerned that we are exercising too much? For most of us, the answer is no. The vast majority of people do not need to worry about getting addicted to exercise, and should try to exercise regularly. Typically, people who don't exercise much find exercise hard work at the beginning, and it is only after your strength, stamina, and skill develops that you start feeling good during and after exercise.

Even for those who have developed a regular exercise routine, look forward to exercising, and feel great during and after exercise, most never get to the point where exercising too much is a concern. There is wide variation on how much pleasure people derive from exercise, people's predisposition to addiction, and people's individual neurological make up, and it has been noted by neuroscientists that one of the main reasons that people with the intention of increasing exercise eventually quit is a lack of enjoyment.

If anything, most of us would benefit from exercising more, and increasing our enjoyment of exercise, to reinforce a regular exercise routine.

Exercise improves your body's functioning in many different ways. Here are some of the benefits of regular exercise:

  • Exercise gives you energy and increases your resistance to fatigue, meaning that although your body is working harder when you exercise, over time, you feel less tired than you did before you started working out.
  • Exercise helps you to get a good night's sleep, and can help with sleep disorders.
  • Exercise makes your muscles stronger, improving your ability to do many different active tasks, and increasing your independence, as you are less likely to need help with physical tasks.
  • Exercise makes you more flexible, increasing the variety of physical activities you can do, whether or not they are directly related to exercise.
  • Exercise improves your endurance, meaning you can continue to be physically active for longer periods of time than you can when you don't exercise, without straining yourself or feeling uncomfortable.
  • Exercise makes your body more efficient at physical tasks, meaning you can do them with less effort, and feel less tired afterwards, than if you don't regularly exercise.
  • Exercise reduces your risk of injuries, such as lower-back problems.
  • Exercise helps you to manage your weight, and can help you to lose weight if you have put on too much weight.
  • Exercise decreases your risk of of cardiovascular disease.
  • Exercise reduces your risk of type 2 (adult onset) diabetes mellitus.
  • Exercise lowers your risk of depression and can help manage the symptoms of depression for those who have it.
  • Exercise may decrease the effects of aging through improved functioning during regular tasks of everyday life.

So you may be wondering, with such a litany of benefits, what could be the problem with exercise? It sounds like the more the better, and you can't go wrong. For most of us, this is true, but for people with a personal or family history of addictions, those with unresolved emotional trauma, or those who are particularly sensitive to endogenous opioids—the drug-like substances produced by the body—there may be a risk in exercising too much.

The Runner's High

The good feelings that people get from exercise, also known as euphoria, is a well-recognized phenomenon, often referred to as "the runner's high."  The euphoria you feel during and after exercise is not harmful, and as noted above, exercise itself is generally healthy, as long as it is not excessive.

In fact, the positive feelings people get from exercise can be a great natural way to motivate you to exercise more regularly, can fight depression, and can be helpful for people who are trying to recover from alcohol and drug addictions. The problem comes from the psychological process of addiction, which can occur in people who experience runner's high, and can potentially lead to exercise addiction.

The runner's high happens naturally when people participate in vigorous exercise, such as running, swimming, or aerobic exercise. It is caused by changes in the body and brain that occur during exercise, which are thought to be similar to the processes that happen when people take opioid drugs, such as heroin. Although this may seem far-fetched, the physical processes of opioid use disorder and exercise addiction are closer than you might think, as the body's own endorphins are important in initiating both types of addiction.

Like with the high that people get from taking opioid drugs, the runner's high feels exhilarating, easeful, and comfortable. If you experience a runner's high, you may cease to notice pain, or become "comfortably numb." You may  experience an overwhelming sense of well-being, even if this does not reflect reality. For example, you may not be bothered by feeling too hot or too cold, and may even have a sense that these things don't matter, feeling a kind of invincibility, that you have superhuman strength and resilience, and can do anything and come out on top.

Of course, these physical things all do matter—people who get high on heroin and people who get high on exercise are just as vulnerable as anyone else to becoming ill from being over- or under-heated, or from the injuries that pain usually prompts us to take care of. People experiencing a runner's high have been known to continue to engage in exercise or sports, even with serious injuries, such as broken bones. At the time, they either didn't notice they were hurt, or it didn't seem to matter.

The Science Behind Euphoria

Scientists have studied the runner's high, in order to understand the opioidergic mechanisms of the runner's high in the human brain, and to identify the relationship of these drug-like chemicals, which occur naturally in the body, to the euphoria or high that people experience when they engage in intense exercise. They performed PET scans on ten athletes, on two separate occasions in random order, at rest and after 2 hours of endurance running of around 20 km. They found a relationship between the amount of opioids in the brain, and the athletes' experience of euphoria. The level of euphoria was significantly increased after running. The findings of this research support the "opioid theory" of the runner's high and suggest region-specific effects in frontolimbic brain areas that are involved in the processing of emotional states and mood. This research indicates that the brains of people who exercise excessively get exposed to excessive amounts of drug-like opioids, creating an intense high, and therefore making it more likely that they will want to experience it again.

How to Know If You're Developing an Exercise Addiction

It is fine to take pleasure in exercise. In fact, it is encouraged. Most of the time, this will not be harmful, and it will do you a lot of good. It is also fine for you to think about how you can improve your technique, or to excel in whatever form of exercise or sport you are engaging in.

Where it becomes problematic to gain pleasure from exercise is when it becomes your main focus in life. If you enjoy exercise, you should enjoy other aspects of life as well. If exercise is the only activity you enjoy—with the exception of other addictive activities, such as sex, eating, work, TV, and of course, alcohol and other drugs—you may be focusing too much on the high you get from exercise, to the detriment of other areas of life.

Are you enjoying a full social and/or family life? If all of the people you enjoy spending time with are exercise buddies, you may be taking it too far. This is particularly the case if you know that you have problems in your primary relationships, for example, with your parents, your partner, or your children, but you aren't addressing these problems because you are focusing too much on escaping into exercise.

One of the biggest indicators of an addiction is a feeling that you can't cope without the high you get from exercise—that it is one of the most important things in your life. If you need to stop exercising, either because you are busy with other priorities, or because of a physical illness or injury, do you feel depressed, anxious, or unable to cope? If so, exercise addiction is a possibility.

Perhaps it might be important to note that there are other conditions that can lead to too much exercise. Excessive exercise can also be frequently seen in those with eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia, and can co-occur with food addiction.

What to Do If You Are Addicted

If you think you might have an exercise addiction, keep a record of how much exercise you do, and when, as well as your mood before and after exercising, and when you are unable to exercise. If, after a week or so, you are noticing a pattern of using exercise for a runner's high that you don't think you can cope without, talk to your doctor and relay your concerns outlined in the mood and exercise diary. Your doctor can refer you to a mental health professional, who can help you to get your exercise under control, and help you to find joy in other aspects of life.

Sources

Boecker, H., Sprenger, T., Spilker, M.E. et al. The runner's high: Opioidergic mechanisms in the human brain. Cerebral Cortex 18:11, 2523-31. 2008.

Egorov, A.& Szabo, A. The exercise paradox: An interactional model for a clearer conceptualization of exercise addiction. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 2(4), 199-208. 2013.

Exercise, euphoria, and the brain opioid system. Neuroscientist, 14:6, 537. 2008.

Landolfi E, Exercise addiction. Sports Medicine, 43:2, 111-1119. 2013.

van Ree, JM, Endorphins and addiction. European Neuropsychopharmacology, Supplement 2 v15: S97-S98. 2005. DOI: 10.1016/S0924-977X(05)80220-2.

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