The other day I was watching the evening news with one of my roommates while we waited for the baseball playoffs to begin. As we half-heartedly watched a special news presentation on drug use among America’s youth, my roommate asked a question which is all too commonly asked by many: “Why do they do drugs?” “Why would anyone ever stay on drugs when these synthetic chemicals are actively destroying their lives and the lives of others right before their eyes?” Although the validity of these questions seems obvious, it is interesting to note that the answer to these inquiries seem to be even more obvious; they are seeking pleasure and hoping to avoid pain. Many people begin to take drugs because of their euphoric inducing effect on the body, and many more stay on drugs because of a conditioned addiction to the “high” produced.
Modern day psychologists have created a term to define the core driving motivation in all humans: Hedonism, which means one’s desire to attain pleasure and avoid pain1. From a biological standpoint, the attainment of pleasure occurs when certain chemicals — such as serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins — are naturally produced in the body and relayed to the brain. The secret to maintaining a pleasurable and happy life is to understand the causes behind the production of these chemicals in the body and to learn how one can maintain high levels of these natural produced “feel good” drugs. While some turn to drugs — which affect the body’s use of these chemicals — as a means to achieving this desired state, there is a far more effective and healthy way by which one can maintain high levels of these biologically produced drugs in their body. Of the euphoric inducing drugs mentioned above, endorphins have proven to be particularly potent. Often referred to as natural opiates, endorphins are most readily produced in the body at the onset of such stimuli as pain, eating, sex, fear, exercise, certain music and meditation2. When such activities occur, these chemicals, known as neurotransmitters, are produced and sent as messengers between gaps, better known as synapses, in nerve cells. It has been noted that “essentially your mood is determined by the number of neurotransmitters [such as endorphins] in the synapse at any given time”3.
At times, endorphin production in the body can be extremely powerful (from twenty to thirty times more powerful than morphine), yet these chemicals break down quickly in the body, losing their effectiveness in just minutes after they are produced. For this reason, it is important to learn how best to stimulate the body’s production of these chemicals if we desire to be constantly happy. The overall importance of endorphins in our lives extends far beyond their ability to give us a “synthetic” drug-like experience. Researchers have found that they also regulate blood pressure and body temperature. Also, people who secrete endorphins during moderate to high levels of stress have lower heart rate activity; they also stay calm even in moments of extreme psychological duress4.
It has also been noted that endorphins have an incredible impact on one’s outlook on life, their attitude, and their mental and psychological capacities to cope with unexpected daily occurrences5. People who experience constant high levels of endorphin secretion tend to have more “pep” for life, a greater tenacity for excellence and are more pro-active. As a result, it becomes quite evident that securing a greater level of endorphin production in the body will increase one’s satisfaction with life; one becomes more motivated to achieve their dreams and goals despite the many challenges that might block their path.
One of the greatest ways to produce high levels of endorphins is through daily aerobic exercise lasting at least thirty minutes6. It has been shown that this stimuli has a more potent effect on endorphin production in the body than laughing, meditation, or even eating. Researchers have found that the release of endorphins during and after daily exercise causes “pain relief . . . a feeling of euphoria, effortlessness, peace or a sort of buzz.”7 The aerobic exercises which seem to contribute the most to increased endorphin production include cycling, running, weight training, swimming and cross-country skiing, although these are not the only exercises which have such an effect. Atko Viru, PhD. D., a world renowned endorphin researcher from Estonia, has noted that “you need to exercise at around seventy-six percent of your maximum heart rate to get the endorphin effect (around 185 beats per minute). Anything lower and your body won’t be in enough distress to warrant the pain-fighter’s appearance.”8 It has also been noted that you are more likely to experience an endorphin high if the exercise performed is one that is familiar to you and your body. By following an exercise program on a regular basis, one will find that their body will produce a greater level of endorphin; they will get a natural high while physically staying in excellent shape. With an increased production of endorphins following daily aerobic exercise, one would be safe to assume that they will experience a greater satisfaction with life and be better prepared to cope with life’s challenges. Such proves to be the case. Not only does working out on a regular schedule protect one from obesity, heart disease and cancer, but it has been shown to “boost your emotional and mental outlook” on life9. As a result of increased endorphin production and a healthy lifestyle, scientists have found that the risk of panic attacks among exercisers to be small. For example, it has been found that breast-cancer patients who normally suffer from high levels of anxiety and depression felt significantly less anxious and depressed after a 10-week exercise program10. A similar result was found in a study involving adults with physical disabilities who followed a regular exercise program over an extended period of time. Similarly, it has been found that men who regularly engage in exercise are up to two-thirds less likely to be depressed than those men who did not exercise at all. Thus, another benefit of exercise related to increased endorphin production is that one becomes less likely to fall into a state of depression. Life begins to look much better.
So instead of synthetic drugs made by man, let’s use exercise to achieve the euphoric high which calms our body and tempers our mind. Through moderate regular exercise, endorphin production is noticeably increased. This identifiable boost has a profound effect on one’s attitude and overall outlook on life. As a result of a regular exercise program, not only will one experience a greater increase in health benefits, but one receives a nice “thank you” from their body in the form of an opiate-like endorphin “high”. The combination of these two effects will open the door of life’s opportunities, giving those who chose to take advantage of this knowledge greater confidence, happiness, and pleasure in their life. After all, isn’t this what we are all looking for. So set a time today and every day that you will exercise, and you will never feel the same again; your body will see to that.
[ 1]. Douglas G. Mook, Motivation: The Organization of Action, (W.W. Norton and Company, New York, 1996) 27
. Kay Marie Porterfield, “The Brain’s Natural Opiates: Endorphins”. Cosmopolitan November 1989: 166
. Ibid, 166 . Cesar Galvez, “It’s All In Your Head”. American Fitness September/October 1998: 26
. Ibid, 27
. Ibid, 27
. Owen Anderson, “The Buzz On Exercise”. Men’s Health January 1995: 88
. Ibid, 89
. Ibid, 90
. Kim A. McDonald “Scientists Consider New Explanations For The Impact Of Exercise On Mood”. The Chronicle of Higher Education 14 August 1998: A15