Emotional Well Being

Getting high on endorphins through training

Emotional Well Being

By Martin Dwyer, M.S., C.F.T.

What makes a person want to train, lift weights, do cardio, year after year? 

Many factors have played a role in my desire and ability to continue a regimen of exercise year after year. Put simply, it feels good to exercise. Weightlifting makes your body strong. Cardio gives you endurance. Strength and endurance. These are good.

But when I asked why I continue to exercise intensely now for decades my answer is simple:

Exercise makes me feel good!

When I exercise, I feel good. My emotional state is better. It keeps me calm, but more than calm it keeps me excited and positive about life in general. Through study and training for the many years, I’ve discovered the reason for this emotional benefit I enjoy. The reason for this, I’ve come to find out, is endorphins.

Exercise releases chemicals called endorphins. These endorphins interact with the receptors in your brain that reduce your perception of pain and produce many positive side-effects.

Psychological Benefits of Endorphins

Endorphins trigger a positive feeling in the body, similar to that of morphine. For example, the feeling that follows a run or workout is often described as “euphoric.” That feeling, known as a “runner’s high,” is often accompanied by a positive and energizing outlook on life.

Endorphins act as analgesics, which means they diminish the perception of pain. They also act as sedatives. They are manufactured in your brain, spinal cord, and many other parts of your body and are released in response to brain chemicals called neurotransmitters.

The neuron receptors endorphins bind to are the same ones that bind some pain medicines. However, unlike with morphine, the activation of these receptors by the body’s endorphins does not lead to addiction or dependence. Research shows endorphins produced from regular exercise can have important positive direct benefits: (1) Reduce stress, (2) Ward off anxiety and feelings of depression, (3) Boost self-esteem, and (4) Improve sleep.

Exercise for Endorphins

By now, vast credible research has been conducted to connect exercise with endorphins and emotional well being. For example, careful research has shown that regular exercise and the associated elevation of endorphins can be used effectively in treatment for serious conditions such as depression and migraine headaches. But if you are considering exercise for endorphin production and emotional well being, you should carefully weigh the type of exercise you pursue.

Exercise Intensity

Further research has been conducted to determine what type and duration of exercise produces the maximal endorphin production and emotional benefit. First, lets look at the target training zone that produces the most endorphins. For a 55-year old person, as an example, subtract age (55) from 220 and you arrive at what is termed the ‘maximum heart rate.’ In our 55-year old example, the maximum heart rate would equal 165 beats per minute.

The American Heart Association and Center for Disease Control classifications for moderate and vigorous exercise based on percentages of maximum heart rate as follows:

  • Moderate exercise intensity: 50 to about 70 percent of your maximum heart rate, which would be a range of 83 to 115 bpm for our hypothetical 55 year-old person.
  • Vigorous exercise intensity: 70 to about 85 percent of your maximum heart rate, which would be a range of 115 to 140 bpm for our 55 year-old example.

The Mayo Clinic Healthy Living Program recommends a target heart rate of 65 percent to 75 percent of your maximum heart rate for moderate-intensity exercise. While endorphin levels rise at either moderate or vigorous exercise intensity, research shows conclusively that endorphin production rises as exercise becomes more intense. Moreover, it may take longer for endorphin production to kick in at lower intensity levels.

Exercise Type

If you’re just getting started you will want to build a base of conditioning at moderate intensity. In order to build this base, while at the same time enjoying the emotional benefits of endorphins, consider the runner’s training concept of long slow distance. Since research shows it can take up to 15 minutes for endorphins to start ramping up at lower exercise intensity, you will want to exercise at a pace you can maintain for at least 20 minutes to begin and more as you progress. Walking, cycling, treadmills, and exercise bikes are great ways to get this type of training. As your base of conditioning grows, you should be more comfortable with weight training. Research suggests a simple rule to follow when looking at weight training for endorphin production:

The more weight you use, the more endorphins you release.

Moreover, what I refer to as the “Big Three” exercises (Bench Press, Dead Lift, Squat) have been shown to produce the biggest endorphin rush.

Three Steps

After you’ve visited your doctor and been cleared for physical exercise, consider the following factors for reaping the emotional benefits of exercise:

  1. Determine what type of exercise intensity is appropriate for you given your current state of wellness and fitness experience.
  2. Establish a minimum of three days a week that you will exercise to your optimal intensity for at least 20 minutes.
  3. Join a nearby gym or fitness center. It will be important for you to experiment with different cardio and weight training equipment as you continue your journey.

Be determined to stick to this process for a period of weeks, months, and years not only for you physical health but also for your emotional well being. Perhaps one day, decades from now, when people ask why you keep coming back to exercise in your life you will answer quite simply, “Because exercise makes me feel good.”

Additional Reading

The following resources were used in preparing this post. The reader is encouraged to review them for additional detail and information.

“Boost Your Mood With Daily Exercise”, www.simplyfit.com

“Exercise and Depression”, www.WebMD.com

“Gauging Intensity Using Your Heart Rate”,www.mayoclinic.org

“How much exercise is necessary for endorphin release?”, www.exercise.com

“Neurobiological Effects of Physical Exercise”, www.wikipedia.com