Exercise is a powerful drug. It seduces many with its zen-like state, a feeling that was coined the "runner's high" in the 1970s. The lure of exercise can even turn enthusiasts into addicts.
"I'm addicted to the high of exercising," says 22-year-old Vanessa. "I can't wait to ride the bike so I can start feeling good. I'm not sure why it happens, but it's like a feeling of relief."
It is common knowledge that exercise produces many mental benefits in addition to all the physical benefits. There is something about exercise that makes us feel better. But what causes that feeling? Can we really become addicted to it?
For years the rush has been thought to be caused by endorphins (endogenous hormone-like substances produced in response to stress or pain). Because exercise is a form of stress, our bodies release endorphins when we exercise. Proponents of the endorphin rush believe that these molecules change the way we feel, thus giving us that high after working out.
Endocanniboids may be another chemical involved in the high. A study published in the Journal of Experimental Biology found that some animals who participate in endurance exercise regularly tend to release more endocanniboids during exercise than others animals that live a more sedentary existence.
Some researchers believe that a runner's high helped our ancestors run longer distances to find food. Although we may not have to hunt or gather to find food anymore, many of us still feel the primal urge to run to achieve that feeling of exhilaration.
Research indicates that psychological factors may be a cause of the exercise high. In one study 46 undergraduate women were divided into two groups. None of these women had exercised more than once a week.
All 46 women underwent fitness tests on a stationary bike. No matter how they had performed, women in one group were told they had excellent test results. Women in the other group were told they had below average results.
Several days later, researchers asked the women to exercise again. Each woman was reminded of her previous performance. Then, every 20 minutes during a workout on the Stairmaster, researchers asked the women how they felt. Women who had been told they had done well on their first test responded more positively than women who had been told they had done poorly. That confidence, researchers concluded, may contribute to the high people feel after exercising.
Whether brain chemicals or psychological factors are to blame, some people can become addicted to exercise.
Psychology may play a larger role than physiology in causing people to abuse exercise. Certain personalities may predispose people to developing an addiction to exercise. People with obsessive-compulsive disorder or addictive personalities, for example, may be more prone to developing a heavy reliance on exercise. For others, exercise becomes a coping mechanism.
Exercise addiction or abuse was first analyzed by Dr. William P. Morgan in 1979. Morgan studied runners and discovered that excessive exercise can cause physical and mental harm. Since then, researchers have learned that recreational and serious athletes in any sport can abuse exercise.
People who abuse exercise typically exhibit three common characteristics:
Essentially, exercise becomes the number one priority in life for exercise addicts, and all activities are scheduled around working out. They often ignore careers, friends, spouses, and children. In fact, exercise abusers may even lie about their workout patterns.
The more involved they get with exercise, the deeper their addiction grows. Because they are never satisfied with the amount of exercise they get, they continue to increase the dose. They often feel a loss of control, and they become so dependent on their workouts that they cannot and will not stop, no matter what the cost. In many cases, their dependency on exercise is not evident until something like work, family, or injury interferes with their daily routine.
They also disregard warning signs of physical ailment. Even when they are sick or injured, they continue to push themselves. Sometimes the consequences of exercising while injured can lead to permanent physical disability that prohibits future exercise.
Unfortunately, there are no estimates about how many people abuse exercise. There is also little recognition of the problem, largely because exercise is a healthy habit.
Fortunately, though, the majority who work out will not abuse exercise. Everyone who exercises, no matter what their level of fitness, can experience that rush from being active and living life to its fullest.
American Council on Exercise
American Psychological Association
Canadian Psychological Association
Public Health Agency of Canada
Landolfi E. Exercise addiction. Sports Med. 2013;43(2):111-119.
McAuley E, Talbot HM, Martinez S. Manipulating self-efficacy in the exercise environment in women: influences on affective responses. Health Psychol. 1999 May;18(3):288-94.
Morgan WP. Negative addiction in runners. The Phys and Sports Med. Feb 1979:57-70.
Raglin J. The endorphin hype. IDEA Health & Fitness Source. March 1999:61-63.
Raichlen D, Foster A, et al. Wired to run: exercise-induced endocannabinoid signaling in humans and cursorial mammals with implications for the 'runner's high'. J Exp Biol. 2012;215(Pt8):1331-1336.
Runner's high is real and evolved to help us survive. American Council on Exercise website. Available at: http://www.acefitness.org/blog/2482/runner-39-s-high-is-real-and-evolved-to-help-us. Published March 29, 2012. Accessed July 2, 2014.
Last reviewed July 2014 by Michael Woods, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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