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A closer look at 'runner's high'

I’m never really sure what to say when people ask me why I run. I stammer about enjoying the accomplishment of crossing the finish line, I mumble about the stress relief or I joke that it’s a preemptive strike against my fondness for Chipotle burritos.

Truth be told, I think that’s only part of it. The other part is how I feel after a good run: the rush of lightness, the release of tension lingering in my muscles and the thought that I’m stronger than I was before.

According to David Raichlen, PhD, a researcher at the University of Arizona and a runner, the so-called runner’s high is a legitimately addictive feeling and may be part of the reason I’m hitting the trails and doing laps around my neighborhood on a regular basis. In recent research published in the Journal of Experimental Biology, Raichlen explored similarities between this feeling and the addictive nature of drugs. And today, NPR Shots discusses Raichlen’s findings and how the runner’s high may have had evolutionary advantages for early humans:

When people exercise aerobically, their bodies can actually make drugs — cannabinoids, the same kind of chemicals in marijuana. Raichlen wondered if other distance-running animals also produced those drugs. If so, maybe runner's high is not some peculiar thing with humans. Maybe it's an evolutionary payoff for doing something hard and painful, that also helps them survive better, be healthier, hunt better or have more offspring.

So he put dogs — also distance runners — on a treadmill. Also ferrets, but ferrets are not long-distance runners. The dogs produced the drug, but the ferrets did not. Says Raichlen: "It suggests some level of aerobic exercise was encouraged by natural selection, and it may be fairly deep in our evolutionary roots."

Raichlen himself admits that his research is not conclusive, saying that he would like to continue to experiment with more animals. But whether or not my ancestors ran to be more adept at chasing after food, I’m just happy to be addicted.

Photo by Infomatique

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