“Runner’s high” is a term applied to a sensation some runners get during an extended run. Most describe it as a feeling of euphoria combined with a decreased sensitivity to pain.
Although most often achieved through running, any sustained high-intensity aerobic workout can actually trigger it. No matter the workout, what is important is the understanding of the reward pathways of the brain that are the mechanism through which the runner’s high operates.
The brain’s reward pathways are also involved in substance use disorder. Certain chemicals in drugs bind to receptors in the brain, activating or inhibiting activity in the neurons. Opioids, for example, bind to receptors that regulate the pain response, which is why morphine is an effective analgesic. These same receptors are also responsible for the feelings of euphoria associated with drug use.
Other substances—such as alcohol and cannabis—work to suppress the activity of neurons. These drugs are classified as depressants because they reduce neural activity. This can have the effect of decreasing anxiety and lowering inhibitions.
The receptors are part of the brain’s regular system of operation. Our bodies produce their own set of chemicals that bind to these receptors. Endorphins (whose name is a shortened form of “endogenous morphine”) are the body’s way of activating the opioid pathways. Anandamide—a cannabinoid produced by our bodies—and similar chemicals work on the endocannabinoid system that keeps the body’s systems working in balance (homeostasis).
Because running affects the same pathways that drug use does, it may be effective as part of a treatment plan for addiction. Indeed, a special report in Runner’s World was dedicated to running as part of a recovery plan. In addition to covering the stories of several people who had used running to beat addiction, the report was written by Caleb Daniloff, who attributes his own recovery to running.
The way the runner’s high works has only recently come to be understood. Due to its association with euphoria and pain relief, it had long been suspected that runner’s high was caused by the release of endorphins. A 2015 study by scientists at the University of Missouri–Columbia seems to confirm this hypothesis.
What is surprising, however, is that the endocannabinoid system appears to be involved as well. A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science demonstrated that running produced higher levels of anandamide, which may account for the lowered anxiety and contribute to the reduced sensitivity to pain.
Exercise has long been a part of the recovery program at Lakeview Health. As part of the renovation and expansion of the Lakeview campus in 2016, they now feature new two-story, state-of-the-art wellness center. Filled with a large variety of exercise equipment, a yoga room, a running track, and a lap pool, the center is part of their holistic approach to addressing patients’ health.
Lakeview Health’s certified trainers see the benefit of exercise every day. “Exercise allows the body to release endorphins and dopamine, creating a natural high, as well as helping to improve self-confidence and body image. Exercise is also a great resource in early recovery because it can help to fill in the extra time that was previously spent using substances and is a healthy tool when experiencing cravings.”
Lakeview wellness staff designed the wellness therapy program to meet the different needs and interests of individuals in recovery. Fitness is an integral part of the recovery process. Exercise typically improves mood and can help counter depression. And because it activates the same pathways as substance use, it can help curb cravings.
Substance misuse and exercise both activate the same areas of the brain. Incorporating exercise and fitness into a treatment program can help people begin walking—or running—the path to recovery.
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