Endorphins are a group of hormones secreted throughout the brain and body during intense stress or arousal and are part of the “fight-or-flight” response. In general, endorphins can relieve pain, produce feelings of pleasure, reduce stress and increase relaxation. One way to stimulate the release of endorphins is through exercise.
Intense Exercise Required
How much exercise is necessary? Research conducted in 1990 at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro found that high intensity exercise for at least 15 minutes was needed to increase endorphin levels. In order to maximize endorphin release, an exercise routine needs to incorporate substantial cardiovascular exercises such as sprints or high-intensity aerobics.
No Pain = More Gain
Endorphins work as the body’s natural pain killers. The endorphin subtype most often implicated in pain relief is called beta-endorphin. Beta-endorphin is released into the circulation from a brain region known as the pituitary gland during exercise and may help you work out harder and longer by reducing painful sensations. During intense exercise, your body experiences increased levels of stress, which trigger the release of endorphins. Endorphins bind to specialized receptors located throughout the nervous system. The activation of these receptors blocks the transmission of pain messages traveling to the brain and reduces the release of chemicals that cause inflammation and swelling.
The runner’s high is often described as an intense feeling of euphoria experienced after strenuous physical activity. Feelings of euphoria have also been linked with endorphin activity. A brain imaging study published in 2008 in the scientific journal “Cerebral Cortex” reported increased endorphin activity in brain areas responsible for emotional regulation after two hours of running. The participants with the most endorphin activity reported the greatest feelings of euphoria, suggesting that the more endorphins you produce during exercise, the better you will feel. Unfortunately, the runner’s high does not occur in every person, and it does not happen after every workout.
Reduce Stress and Relax
It is widely accepted that exercise reduces stress. After exercise, endorphins can help to lower heart rate and blood pressure, stabilize breathing and restore normal body temperature. Endorphin activity can also produce mild sedation, which may increase feelings of well-being and perceived relaxation after a workout. Other techniques, such as yoga, controlled-breathing exercises and meditation can also enhance the calming effects of endorphins after physical activity.
- "Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise"; Plasma Beta-endorphin Concentration: Response to Intensity and Duration of Exercise; Allan H. Goldfarb, et al.; April 1990
- "Mental Health and Physical Activity"; Lessons in Exercise Neurobiology: The Case of Endorphins; Rod K. Dishman, et al.; January 2009
- "Cerebral Cortex"; The Runner's High: Opioidergic Mechanisms in the Human Brain; Henning Boecker, et al.; November 2008
- "The New York Times"; Runner's High? Endorphins? Fiction, Some Scientists Say; Gina Kolata; May 2002