Exercising 'High'
November 21, 2014 3:16 PM   Subscribe

Will I ever get an endorphin rush? I started an incremental exercise program, a couple of weeks doing a basic routine (24 mins a day) and then adding to it, and adding again (finally just under an hour a day). There were resistance bands and lots of sweating, I put a lot of effort in but got no endorphin rush.

Am I ever going to feel it? I hate exercising and will take most excuses not to but I stuck with the programme as my therapist and partner both promised there would be a natural rush. I’m seven weeks in and nothing. All I feel is sweaty, tired and yak.

The weight loss is not the end goal (though it is nice). This is more about feeling healthier and happier and so far that’s not really happening.

Does it take a while for the ‘high’ to kick in, should I just stick it out? Or is it possible that I’ll never get the rush?
posted by She Kisses Wyverns to Health & Fitness (40 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Does it take a while for the ‘high’ to kick in, should I just stick it out? Or is it possible that I’ll never get the rush?

It's possible it'll never kick in for you (sorry), but in my experience, as a former exercise-hater, it kicks in when exercise starts being "hard but manageable" and stops being "agonizing." Practice practice practice.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 3:20 PM on November 21, 2014 [3 favorites]

Excepting the last few months of inactivity I'm moderately active - I've done 100 km bike rides and I'm not a great runner but I've done 1 hour 10 km runs.

I don't think I've ever gotten the famous "runner's high".

But let me tell you, not having exercised meaningfully since September I am so tired and sluggish. For me it was never a big one-time "high" but an overall feeling of energy and generally well-being.
posted by GuyZero at 3:21 PM on November 21, 2014 [5 favorites]

For me, there's often not a rush as much as there is a lack of anxiety and a better mood the next day.

The studies I looked into a few years back said that happy neurotransmitters peaked at about 30-40 minutes of aerobic exercise, which would require 5-10 minutes of warm-up to get your heartrate up first.
posted by jaguar at 3:22 PM on November 21, 2014 [3 favorites]

But from the experts: How to Achieve a Runner's High:

"Which means the same mechanism that triggers endorphins can also trigger endocannabinoids: a challenging (not killer) workout. Raichlen says that running at 70 to 85 percent of your age-adjusted maximum heart rate is optimal in spiking the primary stress hormone cortisol, and producing endocannabinoids. (If you're 30, you'd aim for between 142 and 161 beats per minute.)"
posted by GuyZero at 3:23 PM on November 21, 2014 [3 favorites]

I hate running and have never experienced runner's high. But I get a likely-similar yoga high, even after I'm doing yoga for the first time in six months. I also love rock climbing even though it's super hard. Maybe you need to switch up the exercise routine and find something that works for you.
posted by serelliya at 3:33 PM on November 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

Having stopped and re-started regular exercising more times than I care to count, I can say that for me it definitely does take a while to get this to kick in. It requires a sustained effort of a certain level for 30-45 minutes, and when I'm out of shape I cannot maintain that required level of effort for that time. So I have to actually get in shape a little bit before I can enjoy getting in shape more.

Aerobic exercise does it for me quicker than resistance exercise. And an hour a day is too much for me, if I'm working out pretty hard. Way too much for me if that's resistance exercise.
posted by FishBike at 3:35 PM on November 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

What kind of exercise are you doing? Sounds like maybe some basic bodyweight resistance stuff? It's the cardio element that gives you the high, not just effort, as GuyZero and jaguar say. For cardio, whenever I've come back to it after time away, it's taken me a bit of time to reacclimate my body (i.e. for my muscles to be at the point where they can happily carry the movements required to bring the heart rate up).

(On preview - a yoga 'high' makes sense to me, because of the deep breathing; swimming does that for me.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 3:35 PM on November 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

Take a few days of rest. An hour a day every day is a grind. I found that I noticed the benefits of exercise a lot more when resuming exercise after a multi-day rest. It was only at that point where I experienced a subjective improvement in health and wellbeing post-exercise.
posted by crazycanuck at 3:38 PM on November 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

I've never gotten the runner's high. I've had years of multiple kinds of exercise, cardio, non-cardio, whatever, and I've never gotten it. I do enjoy it way more than I used to, and I find marked differences in my general energy level and happiness, but that is more a thing that creeps up on me slowly and I only notice for sure when I am life tracking, not a thing that Happens in the middle of the workout.
posted by brainmouse at 3:40 PM on November 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

I've never gotten the classic runner's (or cyclist's) high from my endurance exercise. What I do get is a feeling of being in a meditative state, where I am focused only on what I am doing, and how it feels. It's a very calm, peaceful, vitalizing mood, where I feel as if I could keep going on indefinitely. When I'm cycling, it's accentuated by riding through the woods, especially if there's a rushing brook next to the road. I know that there are some people who use their runs/rides/whatever to think about things, but I tend to get into a place where discursive thought doesn't seem to have much point.

Perhaps that is the high, though it's far from euphoric. I have to say that pot never did much for me the couple times I tried it, so maybe my brain circuitry just isn't prone to euphoria.
posted by brianogilvie at 3:45 PM on November 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

I am a lifelong runner - 10 marathons and a zillion half marathons -- LOTS of running. Never had this high people speak of.
posted by AllieTessKipp at 3:46 PM on November 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

This is one of those things that are talked about as if "everyone" experiences but in actuality is just a quirk of physiology that some people have and some don't. For example: I don't get a "buzz" from nicotine or "hyper" from caffeine and sugar even though people claim those things have that effect. Likewise, even as a very dedicated exerciser, I don't get anything resembling a "runner's high." I do, however, get lethargic if I got for a long period of time without exercising, so I make sure to maintain the routine for my own physical and mental health.

This is related to a combination of temperament and physiology-- in the same way some people get addicted to cigarettes and some people don't, some people are really emotional and some people aren't, and some people have chronic depression and some people don't, some people get endorphin rushes from exercise and some people don't (or experience it in a different way which they don't express quite as poetically such that it got repeated as a "normal" effect of exercise).
posted by deanc at 3:51 PM on November 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

a challenging (not killer) workout. Raichlen says that running at 70 to 85 percent of your age-adjusted maximum heart rate is optimal

This is absolutely it. For years, I never experienced a runner's high until I started monitoring my heart rate. Turns out, I was pushing way to hard, running at near my max heart rate. I cut back to about 75% - 80% and I now get a warm, fuzzy feeling every single time.
posted by the jam at 4:06 PM on November 21, 2014 [4 favorites]

I've had jobs where I essentially exercised for the whole damn day and never experienced an endorphin rush. I did however feel better generally so I think it's worthwhile.
posted by vapidave at 4:28 PM on November 21, 2014

I don't think I've ever gotten the famous "runner's high".

For me it's like jaguar says, I experience what it must be like to not be anxious all the time. I love everyone and am very very hungry and I sleep like I imagine "normal" people sleep. It's not a high per se. And I only started really experiencing it when I was getting my heart rate up for extended periods of time (like 45-75 minutes, somewhat less time if I was swimming) not with stuff like walking or yoga or other things that were good for me but not in the same way.
posted by jessamyn at 4:30 PM on November 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

I have no idea what a runner's high is supposed to feel like. For me, it's most psychological: I feel more supple and fit and strong after my weekday workout and about twelve hours later I start anticipating the next day's workout. And I know I look about as good as I feel. That's high enough for me.
posted by DrGail at 4:31 PM on November 21, 2014

Runner here (albeit a slow one!) I like yoga and biking too. I truly hate all weight work including resistance bands.

For me, it is aerobic exercise -- biking and running -- that give me the famous runner's high. Which isn't really a high, it is more that I feel happy and alive and balanced and that feeling stays with me. Yoga makes me feel serene and connected in a deep way with the world around me. Weights and resistance bands make me feel cranky.

Maybe try some aerobic stuff?
posted by bearwife at 4:35 PM on November 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

I get the runner's high from some runs. It kicks in for me at about the 1 hour mark, which means I don't make it there very often. But I do know what it feels like and it is not hugely different (or at least not obviously more fun) than the feeling I get after an intense weights workout when my muscles are tired and floppy and I take a hot shower, followed by lying down between clean sheets. That makes my muscles feel happy. The runner's high is different in nature, but not in terms of degree of pleasure or incentivising. The good news is that the weights high is easier and more reliable to induce. It does require lifting to failure in at least one exercise, though, so if you are doing lower weights for more reps, you might not feel the same way.
posted by lollusc at 4:46 PM on November 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

Um, I get a proper coming-up-on-mdma high. Usually about half an hour in, mostly when I make an extra effort (speeding up while running uphill) helps a LOT if there's some kind of driving music. I get it in Bodypump and spinning classes (similar music), dancing in clubs (sober!) and cycling without any music as well. I do get an exhausted happy feeling after a hard run/cycle/game of tennis/whatever, but the first sensation is totally different.

Try different music with your cardio.
posted by tinkletown at 4:48 PM on November 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

All I feel is sweaty, tired and yak.

I've never had a runner's high, but I've definitely felt sweaty, tired and painful. ("Yak" I'm not sure about.) Two things have helped me keep exercising:
  • Finding exercise that I enjoy doing. Plain running feels pointless to me. Running around after a soccer ball, though, is something I find fun and challenging.
  • Proper rehydration and stretching afterwards. It took me a while to figure out that I needed to stretch my neck muscles, too, in order to avoid post-exercise headaches.

posted by clawsoon at 4:56 PM on November 21, 2014

I've spent a lot of time running but I don't ever recall any feeling other than the "yak" you mention.

What will always give me a rush is lifting heavy weights. Find a lift you enjoy, work at it over many weeks or months at comfortable, increasing weight. After a while test yourself lifting one rep. Meeting your goal will probably have you bouncing off the walls and ceiling. Lifting your one rep max is also a serious workout.
A weight workout almost always produces endorphins for me but cardio does not.
posted by littlewater at 5:41 PM on November 21, 2014

The most I've gotten is - if there's a set of muscles on me that is especially tight and tense for some reason, when I'm at the gym and I hit those muscles in my round of exercising it's a massive release of that tension, which gives me a BIG headrush for a few minutes. (If you walk by me when I'm on the shoulder press machine and see me in those moments I probably look like i"m hypnotized or something.) I actually slacked off with the gym for a good while, but it was getting those massive knots in my shoulders that I couldn't release any other way that drove me into going to the gym again, because I knew that THAT would sort them out.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:43 PM on November 21, 2014

I never grew up playing sports or being active, and was overweight (and technically obese) for much of my life (I'm 34), but started an exercise regimen about 21 months ago. Like you, the end goal wasn't to lose weight (although I've lost over 50lbs, and that's nice I admit). The starting goal for me was to release anger & frustration I felt towards someone (oh, the poor elliptical machine!). I started using the elliptical for 20 minutes, 3x a week, on a resistance setting of zero. That meager amount left me sore for like the entire first month.

It took a long time for me to feel really good about exercise. I had some funks for sure. Injuries. Painful skinned knees. Sprains. A broken toe. What really helps propel me forward and getting back up, is knowing I can still do things I could never do before. Go for more minutes. Up the resistance. The proof was in the strength. I never fully ran the mile when we were required to do for the Physical Fitness Test in grade school - I'd finish around 12-13 minutes, walking a fair portion of it. Last weekend I ran 7.5 miles continuously, maintaining a less than 9 minute mile for the entire race. When stacked up against my own (old) self, that makes me feel really, really good.

I think I experienced a runners high twice. I had two runs last winter that felt weirdly euphoric. But mostly, every single run sucks, especially in the first few minutes. Every single time I run, I want to stop. The first few minutes hurt, and I can't fathom how I'm going to get through 3, 4, 5 or whatever miles. I want to quit - Every. Single. Time. But I know that if I can get over the first few UGHHH minutes, it does actually get better.

I've asked a lot of questions on Mefi about running and exercise in my own "journey," and really feel like I finally understand what's often been posted - that SO MUCH of it is mental. In your capacity and how you can push yourself, in the feels you get when you fulfill a daily goal (even if it's an up in time/endurance - that's still a great goal). Really seeing that you're getting stronger, however slowly - the proof is in your minutes. Stacked up against yourself, you will get confidence seeing and knowing that you're gaining endurance/strength/etc. Maybe there's not some euphoric hormonal rush, but you've got to feel really good about those improvements. You more than doubled your workout time? Mentally, you've got to feel really, really great about getting strong enough to achieve that! That's a big deal!
posted by raztaj at 6:00 PM on November 21, 2014 [3 favorites]

it's the aerobics part that's important: OXYGEN!!
posted by sexyrobot at 6:19 PM on November 21, 2014

I have slogged through years and years of trying to be a runner and hating it. I don't get a runner's high while running, just feel miserable the whole time, but I do feel better if I am doing aerobic exercise regularly, particularly afterward and the next day. Rock climbing does it for me too, and it's more fun than running. Also vinyasa yoga, but in a different way. Anyway, I guess I'm saying try lots of different types of exercise and the effect might be delayed.
posted by geegollygosh at 6:42 PM on November 21, 2014

I've never ever gotten a runner's high, despite running many miles at a time. I HAVE gotten a dancer's high, a bicyclist's high, a climber's high, a swimmer's high, even a walker's high. The key for me is to get into the mode where I'm enjoying the activity instead of struggling to do it. That only happens if the activity is enjoyable to begin with. I hate running! So there is nothing to enjoy.

You didn't say what type of exercise you are doing, but if there is ANY physical activity that strikes you as pleasurable, it will be much more likely that you'll find your high, instead of forcing yourself to do Exercise-with-a-capital-E because of your partner's and therapist's pressure.

(Types of exercise that don't have to feel like Exercise: dance class, leisurely bike rides in a park, speed walking on a beautiful trail, splashing around in the water, playing catch with a niece/nephew...)
posted by rogerrogerwhatsyourrvectorvicto at 7:25 PM on November 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

I have to wonder how the whole "runner's high" thing got to be so pervasive. I've been doing endurance sports, mostly bicycling, for about two decades. The only thing that gives me a definite buzz is a long hard swim. Running doesn't do it. Bicycling doesn't do it. What I do enjoy is what others above have referred to as the zen time while exercising. In the moment, aware and not aware. Many times I've ridden home from the bakery and I couldn't tell you what was going on, I was enveloped in my thoughts, my body moving me along. That is what I really love experiencing.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 7:25 PM on November 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

computech_apolloniajames's comment reminded me of something a friend once told me she felt after exercising: "I walked across the street and I felt like my body was moving my mind, not my mind moving my body." It's a temporary switch of control from your brain to your body that feels calming and cleansing (for me).
posted by rogerrogerwhatsyourrvectorvicto at 7:33 PM on November 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

The runner's high eluded me forever, all I got (late '70s) was shin splints, because back then shoes and technique were un-developed. The closest I have ever been to it was during a multi-pitch climb when I suddenly found myself in a flow situation, which is about as good as sex: all I wanted was to finish this scary traverse and the focus I brought to it is an experience I shall never forget.

Perhaps you can back the situations you need to have out of what already brings you flow experiences. Is it intense puzzle-solving that happens to involve your body's ability? Then climbing may be for you. Surfing works like that too, because no two situations in surfing work exactly the same. River kayaking might be akin to that yet I cannot do or recommend it because there are too many random elements and if the wrong one surfaces you die (river kayakers and free solo climbers have my respect, don't get me wrong, it's just that I am not that gutsy).

Another avenue may be yoga: if you are really practicing you have nothing in your head except how to hold the pose dynamically, which you have to do if you expect to hold it long enough. I have had flow experiences in yoga equivalent to that traverse pitch much more reliably than in any other activity except one: sex can focus you like that too.
posted by jet_silver at 7:51 PM on November 21, 2014

My first experiences with runner's high happened in high school, during track & field practice--but only on long distance runs lasting over an hour, and only after becoming pretty fatigued/winded and then getting a second, and sometimes third, wind. So, pretty intense workouts.

I can't run anymore, but I can hike. About once or twice a year I actually get a runner's high from hiking. To get it, I have to hike really hard for hours--about 10-12 miles with a few thousand feet of elevation gain. It has to be hard enough that I start to get jelly legs. I've had runner's highs that have felt a lot like a cocaine or ecstasy high (i.e., euphoria/exaltation/tingling throughout body). It really is pretty awesome and is definitely different than the normal sense of calm that I get from a standard workout. It lasts for about 45 minutes and is followed by fatigue & hunger.

I have NEVER gotten a runner's high from exercising at the gym, although I'm sure it's possible. In fact, I did gym workout tonight and felt tired, weak, and nauseous on the way home (basically, needed dinner).

FWIW, I do tend towards the depressive end of the spectrum and may even be mildly dysthymic. But I think anyone can achieve this.
posted by bennett being thrown at 8:49 PM on November 21, 2014

Resistance bands? Haha. Oh dear. Um, I don't think you are doing the right kind of work out. Look into HIIT (high intensity interval training). You get to that point where you body is pushing itself but in a safe way that doesn't require that you are an Olympian. You will want to run, do an elliptical or some sort of cardiovascular activity in high intensity spurts (and it shouldn't involve resistance bands).
posted by AppleTurnover at 9:16 PM on November 21, 2014

I have never never ever gotten an endorphins rush from exercising. In fact, it has always felt awful to me. So it varies from person to person.
posted by Jacqueline at 12:07 AM on November 22, 2014

Wow. I totally get a runners high if I really push myself. Usually really intense cardio will do it. I hate to jog, but I always get it if I push myself doing some kind of aerobics or really intense dance class. There's nothing like it.
posted by gt2 at 12:46 AM on November 22, 2014

I don't think getting high is something you can count on from doing exercise, any more than a sugar rush is something you can count on from eating fruit.

They could happen, but what you reliably get is a feeling of well-being from doing something that's good for you.
posted by tel3path at 8:15 AM on November 22, 2014

Response by poster: Thank you for all the answers! Glad to know it's not just me not getting the high.

The routine is an aerobic one, with a resistance bands section. I've also tried dance exercise, and using my partner's elliptical machine while watching telly. Hated them too.

The only thing I've ever kinda liked is yoga, so I'll look into that a bit more - find some exercises/routines that challenge me, but are suitable for a beginner with RSI in both wrists.

You've all been really helpful.
posted by She Kisses Wyverns at 9:58 AM on November 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure what the "runner's high" or an endorphin rush is. But, going for a run (even 1/2-1h) will often clear my mental palate in a way that makes me feel much better. The exercise seems to act on a physical tension which is born out of mental stress, easing both. The effect comes generally during warm-down, after the physical exertion is over, is a mild effect and not always evident, but makes the exercise worth the effort.

Looking back at other responses, I think this is what jessamyn said.
posted by pjenks at 10:19 AM on November 22, 2014

I don't always get a runner's high when I am just working out, but I definitely feel it when I have participated in races.
posted by florencetnoa at 10:28 AM on November 22, 2014

The runner's high isn't necessarily a dramatic effect. But I have noticed in the past that it seems to start happening only when I'm keeping it at the moderate level and feeling physically good afterward (perhaps achey, but not i'm-going-to-throw-up tired).

Recently, I consciously noticed that I was having the winter doldrums ("I hate standing up. I hate everything. I want to sit down and eat ice cream. But I don't want it to be cold. And I don't want to have to stand up to get it. I hate everything.") Somehow I managed to get out of my chair and go to the cardio-and-weights interval training class.

Then about forty-five minutes after the class I noticed that I had been calling all my friends super-cheerfully and making excited plans for the evening and... where had those winter doldrums gone? Huh. So it must be that runner's high, combined with how friendly everyone else in the class was. But it didn't feel like anything unusual or unnatural for me; just that I was me-in-a-good-mood, rather than me-in-a-bad-mood. I wouldn't have described it as 'a high' at all if I hadn't been in such a crummy mood before the class to compare it to.
posted by Lady Li at 12:09 AM on November 23, 2014

I had a conversation about this with a coworker a while back. He is a marathoner, and describes his "runners high" as, essentially, the point where it stops sucking and moves into something bearable... the implication being that the first few miles suck so bad, that just not sucking represents a huge improvement.

I'm a long term yoga goer and I've experienced something similar, yoga just makes me a "normal", civilized person... Mostly only noticeable when we have a long break in classes and I turn into a snappy, irritable person that no one wants to be around.
posted by anaelith at 7:25 AM on November 23, 2014

I've been a consistent exerciser since childhood (team sports, running, swimming, yoga, fitness classes, gym machines, etc). Regular exercise always makes me feel better overall (and not being able to exercise because I'm sick or injured always makes me feel "off"), but I've only ever experienced an identifiable endorphin rush when running, and only after the first 45 minutes or so on a particular run (so only when I'm running more than 5 miles or so, which I'm not anymore).
posted by Pax at 6:19 AM on November 24, 2014

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