- Persistence Highs, The Joy in Movement & Endocannabinoids
Persistence Highs, The Joy in Movement & Endocannabinoids
🤸♀️ Stretch 38
Looking at the evidence, it’s hard not to conclude that our entire physiology was engineered to reward us for moving.
“At the most fundamental level, rewarding movement is how your brain and body encourage you to participate in life. If you are willing to move, your muscles will give you hope. Your brain will orchestrate pleasure. And your entire physiology will adjust to help you find the energy, purpose, and courage you need to keep going.”
👆 That’s an excerpt from The Joy of Movement—a book by Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University.
This book is all about the mental and emotional benefits of movement. And there are A BUNCH. Research shows that when you exercise:
You benefit from it the rest of the day with all of your interactions
You’re more likely to make progress on your goals
Stressful things take less of a toll on your state of mind
You expand your capacity for pleasure
If exercise was a pill, it’d be the single most widely prescribed pill in the world…
(I was just reminded of this great line from the Wear Sunscreen song: “Enjoy your body; use it every way you can. Don't be afraid of it or what other people think of it. It's the greatest instrument you'll ever own.”)
💪 FORGET RUNNER’S HIGH. IT’S A PERSISTENCE HIGH.
I have a note on my phone where I keep track of my runs.
At the top of that note, there’s a line in bold:
After every run, you feel like anything is possible. You feel strong, creative, healthy, and optimistic.
Yep, as silly as that sounds, I have to remind Future Charlotte of how good she feels after a run. (She tends to forget and come up with all kinds of excuses not to go. Gotta keep an eye on her.)
Ahhhhh, yes, the coveted Runner’s High.
In The Joy of Movement, I read more about some of the theories behind why evolution has gifted us with this euphoric, loving feeling.
(If you’re not a runner—keep reading! This side effect is not exclusive to running, and the takeaways apply to anyone, regardless of your physical abilities.)
1. The high isn’t a random physiological by-product of running long distances. It’s nature’s reward for persisting.
As Kelly hypothesizes in the book:
“Our ability to experience exercise-induced euphoria is linked to our earliest ancestors’ lives as hunters, scavengers, and foragers. The neurochemical state that makes running gratifying may have originally served as a reward to keep early humans hunting and gathering. What we call the runner’s high may even have encouraged our ancestors to cooperate and share the spoils of a hunt. In our evolutionary past, humans may have survived in part because physical activity was pleasurable. In our modern landscape, that same high—whether you achieve it through running or some other physical activity—can elevate your mood and make social connection easier.”
2. It’s not just endorphins. There’s an extra chemical: endocannabinoids.
For decades, it was hypothesized that exercise-induced endorphin release is solely responsible for a runner’s high, but recent evidence has suggested that there’s another brain chemical in play:
If that makes you think of cannabis, you’re not wrong.
Endocannabinoids tend to decrease pain, improve mood, and set off positive neurotransmitters like dopamine and endorphins. Cannabis only mimics these effects.
Now, here’s what’s cool about these endocannabinoids:
Areas of the brain that regulate the stress response, including the amygdala and prefrontal cortex, are rich in receptors for endocannabinoids.
That means that when endocannabinoid molecules lock into these receptors, they induce a state of contentment. Endocannabinoids also increase dopamine in the brain’s reward system, which further fuels feelings of optimism.
That’s what I feel after most runs. Stuff I was thinking about before suddenly seems less urgent or dramatic. Whatever they are, I feel like I’m capable of dealing with them.
And here’s what further research with runners has shown: exercise stimulates the production of endocannabinoids.
But not just any kind of exercise:
Walking slowly for 30 minutes had no effect
Running at maximum effort had no effect
Jogging tripled the runner’s levels of endocannabinoids
These researchers concluded from these results that our brain rewards us for exercise at intensities similar to those used for hunting and foraging two million years ago. Not walking slowly and not running at an exhausting pace, but somewhere in between.
Okay… so what does that mean for us?
Runner’s high is not about the physical act of running in and of itself.
It’s about continuous moderate intensity.
And the best part?
The effects are not limited to running but can be achieved with any moderate physical activity that requires some persistence.
In Kelly’s words:
“Anything that keeps you moving and increases your heart rate is enough to trigger nature’s reward for not giving up. There’s no objective measure of performance you must achieve, no pace or distance you need to reach, that determines whether you experience an exercise-induced euphoria. You just have to do something that is moderately difficult for you and stick with it for at least twenty minutes. That’s because the runner’s high isn’t a running high. It’s a persistence high.”
So here’s the basic recommendation to apply this to your life and start feeling the mental and emotional benefits:
Choose an activity you enjoy (enjoy being the key word!)
Do it for 20 minutes, at least 3 times per week (Kelly recommends daily for best results.)
Make it challenging enough that you feel like you need to put in the effort to persist. Not so difficult that you couldn’t maintain a conversation, but not so easy that it doesn’t take any willpower.
For me, this is a great reminder that we don’t need to be working out for hours in order to get the benefits.
I often talk myself out of a run because I feel like it’s not worth going out for just 30 minutes. The research clearly shows that just 20 minutes can be enough. Of course, more is better, but if that’s all the time you have: go for it.
I highly recommend the book (as well as Kelly’s other books on willpower and stress!). Other chapters go deep into synchronized movement, group exercise, etc.
The book really makes you appreciate everything about being human, and see movement as a gift—not a burden.
👋 … Psssst. If you found this topic of neurochemicals interesting, check out my post on the neurochemistry of focus and motivation.