Endorphins and Exercise: How Intense Does a Workout Have to Be for the ‘High’ to Kick in?
I took these questions and more to J. Kip Matthews, PhD, a sports psychologist (in other words: an endorphins expert). He's well-versed in brain-body connections not only with endorphins but other neurotransmitters, too. He also works with elite athletes of all types helping them deal with stress, depression, and anxiety. (Dancing gracefully in front of hundreds of people or playing tennis in front of a full stadium can 100-percent affect your performance.)
Here, Dr. Matthews gives the low-down on everything you need to know about endorphins and exercise. Because not only do those coveted, feel good chemicals have health benefits, but help turn going to the gym into an activity you can enjoy.
What are endorphins?
"Endorphins are neurochemicals produced in the body in the pituitary gland in response to stress and pain," Dr. Matthews explains. In layman's terms, they're kind of like natural painkillers. "They interact with opiate receptors in the body, which then minimizes our pain experience." As in: They make you feel good.
Dr. Matthews says that scientists didn't actually discover endorphins until the '70s when a lot of research was being done on heroin and morphine addiction. "They were noticing that there were some specific receptors in our body that the heroin and morphine were acting on, and it didn’t make sense as to why we had these opioid receptions in our bodies," he says. "That then led to the discovery of endorphins. And in fact, our bodies do produce these chemicals that have this painkilling aspect."
Since then, more and more studies show that there are actually a lot of activities that can cause a release of endorphins in the body: meditation, laughing, eating chocolate or spicy food, and even childbirth. And exercise of course is another big one.
How intense does a workout have to be for the “high” to kick in?
"In some ways, endorphins get too much of the credit for people having a blissful feeling when they exercise," Dr. Matthews says. That's because they don't work alone: serotonin and norphenylephrine, two other feel-good neurotransmitters, are also released during workouts. According to Dr. Matthews, a serotonin and norphenlyephrine boost actually happens before an release of endorphins, in about 30 or 45 minutes of exercise. But the actual rise in endorphins doesn't really happen until after an hour of intense exercise.
"After an hour or more of exercise, then the body has experienced significant enough stress that the endorphins kick in," he says. Remember: Endorphins are a stress response, released to reduce pain and the perception of pain. So you have to get your body to a pain point to actually get that release, which means intense exercise is typically required. Here's the tricky part though: If you put too much stress on your body, Dr. Matthews says the response can backfire and your hard workout can leave you feeling aggravated or in a bad mood. His best advice for reaching that sweet spot? Listen to your body.
"While meditation, laughing, or eating chocolate do raise endorphin levels, they don't raise them as much as exercising intensely for an hour or more." —J. Kip Matthews, PhD
You may be wondering why it takes so long to raise endorphins during exercise when other ways, like eating chocolate or laughing, obviously don't take as long. "That has more to do with the level of endorphins," Mr. Matthews explains. "While meditation, laughing, or eating chocolate do raise endorphin levels, they don't raise them as much as exercising intensely for an hour or more."
While running often gets the most credit for giving a "high"—often called a runner high—Dr. Matthews says it can really be done with any intense, hour-long workout of any form of exercise. "The reason why running is given so much attention is because when all the information about endorphins was coming out in the '70s, long-distance running was starting to take off as a popular form of exercise," he explains. While long, hard workouts will get you that release of endorphins, he points out that new evidence suggests that you can still raise endorphin levels with just 15 minutes of exercise several times a week, or about 150 minutes over the course of a week. It might not be the same sharp boost, but it will be a steady, natural, feel good upper—just find an activity you enjoy so you can stick to it.
The benefits of raising endorphins through exercise
1. It can lower the symptoms of depression and anxiety
According to Dr. Matthews, the rise in endorphins during exercise can be so powerful that studies have shown it can be just as effective as counseling or medication when it comes to lowering depression and anxiety. (This doesn't mean you shouldn't see a psychologist or consider a prescription drug for your mental health—always consult a doctor before deciding a course of treatment. But it does mean you might want to consider an Rx of working out on the side to see if it helps.)
2. It can help mitigate the effects of stress
Regularly getting that hit of endorphins can help your body respond better to other types of stress, too. "The more sedentary we become—not getting regular exercise—the less efficient the body is at dealing with stressors that are being placed on it," Mr. Matthews says. "By exercising frequently for a longer duration, the body becomes a lot more efficient at handling other types of stress that are put on the body." So that's yet another reason to be diligent about an exercise routine.
3. There's no risk of direct addiction
Unlike outside uppers—like the opioids that sparked researchers to research endorphins more in the first place—Dr. Matthews says there's no danger of getting addicted to an endorphin high. "Because this is something that happens naturally in the body, that isn't going to happen. That doesn't mean someone can't get addicted to exercise," he says. "But exercise addiction is more psychological, similar to a gambling or shopping addiction."
With no downside and all the benefits to gain, there is something to long, intense workouts after all. Whether you're going with tai chi, aerobic exercise, or Pilates, you'll not only get that legit high... but it will do your mind and body both a lot of good.
Want to get those endorphins pumping? This 25-minute HIIT and core workout can help—and you don't even need any equipment.
Originally published July 27, 2018. Updated July 9, 2020.
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