Sex, drugs, and exercise

Student Living by

Resolutions come every New Year’s, and be it losing weight, the latest diet, or just plain eating healthy, many people hope to look leaner by the year’s end. With one third of Canadians being obese, becoming healthier is an admirable resolution. Unfortunately, while many plan to skip the freezer section and throw out the take out menus, most of these resolutions will wane with Valentine’s Day chocolate.

Low calorie diets are notoriously hard to stick to, and may be unrealistic in a college environment rampant with booze and processed food. The secret to getting a junk food addict off the couch is getting them addicted to something else: exercise.

Endorphins are nature’s incentive to exercise. Evolutionarily, they’re what allowed our ancestors to run from predators and endure the pain of childbirth. They block pain receptors during physical activity so that what should be painful is somehow bearable.

Anyone who has sampled morphine or heroin has been under the influence of opiates, which can block pain signals and even produce an addictive high. Endorphins are similar to opiates in structure, meaning that they can have similar behavioural effects. Like opiates used for recreational purposes, endorphins block pain signals from fully transmitting to the brain. This means that for some people, strenuous exercise may induce some of the same – albeit not as intense – feelings as heroin or the analgesic effects of morphine.

Many people have heard of the runner’s high – that a sub-four minute miler can feel no pain while racing, or even thereafter. Running is the typical sport used in reference to endorphins. This is probably because it is exercises the whole body, including muscles that are usually rather dormant, and usually very intensely. But the endorphins can be released in almost any strenuous activity, particularly those that require endurance, such as swimming, biking, or even cross country skiing.

That “high” varies from person to person, but it isn’t always just an absence of pain, and isn’t just restricted to professional athletes. People who have experienced an exercise high describe the experience as pain-free and euphoric. In case you needed another reason to don your sneakers this year, endorphins are also released during orgasm.

With endorphins running rampant in the body, it’s curious why so few people hit the gym. While you may not get a high every time you jump on the treadmill, the physical benefits of exercise should keep you going.

Unlike its illegal counterparts, it’s unclear if people can become addicted to the endorphins released during exercise. But one thing is certain: getting off the couch this winter may actually feel good in the long run.