Runner’s Euphoria: How Physical Activity Helps Us Be Happier

Runner’s euphoria is a special condition of lifting after prolonged physical training. Running, walking, swimming, cycling, yoga, dancing, and other activities have a similar effect. This seems to be how the brain rewards us for our efforts. But why is this happening? Let’s look at examples from Kelly McGonigal’s book “The Joy of Motion”.

“Type of mechanical intoxication”

The state of euphoria that running gives us is described in different ways by different athletes. Some compare it to drunkenness, others to spiritual experience. Philosopher Alexander Bane characterized the pleasure of running as “a kind of mechanical intoxication,” triathlon champion Scott Dunlap as “two Red Bull vodka cocktails plus winning the lottery.”

Here are a few more quotes from the runner’s euphoria forum:

  • “I love to run and when I run, I love everyone who meets me along the way.”
  • “It is like mutual sympathy: when you admit to a person that you like him, and he replies that he likes you too.”
  • “I feel a connection with the people around me, with my loved ones and I look to the future with optimism.”

Intriguing, right?

Modern science explains it this way: our ability to enjoy exercise is linked to genetic memory of how our hunter-gatherer ancestors lived.

The runner’s euphoria was intended to motivate ancient people to engage in hunting and gathering.

Probably, people were able to survive also because physical activity brought them pleasure.

Hunters and gatherers

In 2010, anthropologist Herman Pontzer studied the Hadza tribe in northern Tanzania. Hadza live in an environment as close as possible to that in which our ancestors evolved, they are still engaged in hunting and gathering.

The survival of the Hadza depends on the same factors as that of the ancient people. A source

Special sensors were hung on the men and women of the tribe to measure their activity. It turned out that the Hadza were highly active for two hours a day and spent several hours doing light physical activity, such as walking. The indicators were the same for both men and women.

By comparison, the average American is engaged in vigorous physical activity for less than 10 minutes a day.

At the same time, Hadza does not have cardiovascular diseases, they have lower blood pressure, cholesterol, triglycerides and C-reactive protein content than Americans of the same age.

But even more surprisingly, the Hadza do not suffer from diseases such as depression or increased anxiety.

This is quite consistent with the result of the experiment, which was carried out in the UK and the United States. There, active people were asked to lead a sedentary lifestyle for a while. According to the results, 88% noted that they were more depressed.

Running evolution

A study of the skeletal fossils of ancient people allows us to conclude: our bodies changed to be adapted for running. Large gluteal muscles, long Achilles tendons, the nuchal ligament, which prevents the head from dangling during fast movement – all these are the consequences of “running evolution”.

But what made our ancestors move so actively, if a person is by nature inclined to save energy?

Anthropologist David Rycklen suggested that euphoria is not a physiological “side effect” of long-distance running, but a way to reward us for perseverance and perseverance.

He conducted an experiment by setting subjects to workouts of different types of intensity on a treadmill, and then measured the level of endocannabinoids in their blood – substances that cause feelings of euphoria.

A state of euphoria can be experienced if the duration of a run is at least 20 minutes. A source

It turned out that slow walking and the most intense training had no effect. But when jogging, the level of endocannabinoids in the subjects’ blood increased threefold.

This led Ryklen to suggest that the brain does not reward us for all types of work – but only for those similar to those to which our ancestors were subjected two million years ago, engaged in hunting and gathering.

What does this mean for us?

The main conclusion that can be drawn from all the studies is that it is not just any running that causes euphoria, but prolonged running of moderate intensity. This can include cycling, bent-trail walking, or walking on rough terrain, all of which cause elevated levels of endocannabinoids.

In other words, if you want to feel euphoric, you need to spend time and effort.

There is no specific training intensity, speed or distance to run – only we can determine it. The reward mechanism kicks in when we persevere and raise our heart rate.

Based on materials from the book “The Joy of Motion”

Cover photo from here

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