You've probably heard that some people don't just enjoy running, they claim that it makes them feel so good that it's like they're "high." But if you're not that into running to begin with, there's a good chance that you've never experienced a runner's high of your own. So it can seem like a runner's high is just something runners talk about to show off how fit they are.
But the good news is that the "runner's high" is a real thing, and it is actually possible for anyone — even non-runners — to experience the euphoria and calm that comes along with it. One study from way back in 1992 suggested that a runner's high is really just a mental trick that runners use to "cut themselves off from the sensory feedback" in their body while running. There have since been several studies about runner's highs, and it turns out they're not as mystical or mysterious as they seem.
So, what exactly causes the fabled runner's high?
Well, there are two main theories: One is that exercise provides a rush of endorphins (a.k.a. your body's feel-good neurotransmitters), which reduces your perception of pain, and makes you feel just plain good, according to the Mayo Clinic. Then, a 2015 study on mice found that after running on a wheel (as one does when one is a mouse), the mice not only had higher levels of endorphins, but also seemed to have activated their "endocannabinoid system." As the name suggests, endocannabinoids are similar to cannabinoids, the chemicals that are responsible for getting you high from smoking marijuana. After their run, the mice also had reduced anxiety and pain levels.
And in addition to those two chemicals (endocannabinoids and endorphins) surging through your body, a 2016 study found that aerobic exercise can reduce negative emotions. So, all of those factors put together can contribute to the sensation of a runner's high.
How do you get a runner's high?
If you wanted to recreate this sort of high, it's not totally clear how long you'd actually have to run or exercise in order to tap into it. The mice in the 2015 study were running an average of three miles a day — but again, they're mice, so it's hard to say how that would translate to humans. But, in a 2012 study, humans who ran for 30 minutes on a treadmill reported having a runner's "high." Other researchers have found that moderate-but-not-strenuous aerobic exercise for about 30 minutes is the sweet spot in order to trigger your body's stress response, and then subsequently get your endorphins and endocannabinoids going.
Oh, and you don't have to be literally running in order to get a runner's high. Any aerobic exercise, from an indoor cycling class to a tough HIIT workout, can theoretically trigger this bodily response. If you don't feel it your first time, just keep trying until it clicks. Who knows? You might just find that you enjoy exercise — even if it doesn't make you "high."