The Path to Happy – There are many reasons you exercise, but none is more enticing than the buzzy bliss that comes from a satisfying sweat session. After all, mood-boosting endorphins — aka your body’s built-in pain killers — are one of the main sells of long runs. But is the so-called runner’s high exclusive just to running?
While most forms of exercise will release endorphins, the path to happy will differ. According to recent research published in Neuropsychopharmacology, the flow of these feel-good molecules depends on exercise intensity and plays a unique role in how we perceive our workouts.
A HIIT of Endorphins
Researchers at the University of Turku in Finland studied the effects of different types of exercise on endorphin release and mood. As your body’s natural opioid, endorphins are neurotransmitters that activate your brain’s reward system and minimize pain.
Participants of the study underwent three position emission tomography (PET) scans to illustrate brain functioning before and after exercise. They did one at rest, one after an hour of moderate-intensity exercise and another one after a high-intensity interval training (HIIT) session. What they found was that HIIT significantly increased the flow of endorphins in the brain, particularly to the areas that control pain and emotions. But interestingly, moderate-intensity aerobic session didn’t.
Tina Saanijoki, one of the researchers of the study, says, this is one of the first studies of its kind. “No studies have compared opioid release after moderate and high-intensity exercise at the brain level.” She says, “The finding that HIIT led to opioid release didn’t surprise us, but we were somewhat surprised that in the group level, we didn’t observe opioid release after one-hour of aerobic exercise.”