One of the paradoxes of our scientific age is that laypersons often take what scientists tell us as gospel, whereas scientists themselves mostly flee in horror from any such supposition.
In reality, science is only partly about a method to accrue verifiable knowledge, because, as every scientist knows and every educated layperson should appreciate, it is also a process that clearly implies flux, that remains tentative and contingent through open-ended phases of hypothesis, testing, collating results, questioning, challenging, retesting and reverifying results again.
None of which stands as the final word.
Instead, every piece of scientific literature includes an implicit, open invitation for other scientists to conduct their own research to disprove what previous science has held to be the latest knowledge in any given field.
Movement tends to beget continued movement, the familiar refrain of “Use it or lose it!” proving only too true to movers who do and the immobile who don’t.
All of which seems so far from my subjective experience of utter euphoria after some spirited hill running the other day that I considered writing up that euphoria as a poem or rhapsodic little essay before entering the words “runner’s high” into my search bar mere minutes ago.
From there, it was easy to persuade myself that some scientific research and the lingo that necessarily comes along with it may merit some mention amidst a full-throated endorsement of exercise as one key to a happy, and perhaps more important, sane life.
So there will be a bit of science here, yes.
But first, a little reflection on bliss.
Watch the children! In a powerful sense, everything we ever needed to know about the design of the human body and the brain that inhabits it is that bodies are built to move, and brains interpret that movement in its most primitive, foundational sense as joy, unfettered.
Kids: perpetual motion machines, moving up, down and around—and around and around—until they grow bleary-eyed and collapse unto the sleep of the angels.
Sure, kids get old and eventually, to varying degrees as they migrate to adulthood and old age, creaky. And sometimes they get very sick, with most movement—and the joy it previously engendered—impossible and fruitless to pursue.
But aside from dreadful illness or injury, movement tends to beget continued movement, the familiar refrain of ‘Use it or lose it!’ proving only too true to movers who do and the immobile who don’t.
A week and a half into a travel excursion that has landed me thus far in three states, I left my hotel room the other day and ventured onto a nice steep hill across the road (pictured below, from the crest).
My goal was to perhaps shake some of the woolies out of my system. (Apologies, but “Woolies” is such a complex scientific term that I will have to forego including it in the science discussion below, though I trust you can at least grasp the faint outlines of its meaning…)
One thing leading to another as it sometimes does when I load Bruce Springsteen onto my Spotify, I started loping up the hill, fairly quickly finding my breathing growing labored and my quad and glute muscles gaining weight with each step.
Some struggle, some burn, some gasp, but underneath, a burgeoning joy, like busy but benevolent clouds gathering on a near horizon as the breeze picks up and morning turns to afternoon.
Reach the top, walk to the bottom (never run down, there’s no good in it!), stretch a minute, then launch another foray up the backside.
“Baby, I was bo-ohrnn to runnnnnnn….”
Cresting, walking down again, then running back up, the burn almost pleasant now, the breathing heavy but holding, the joy mounting. Is that from a sense of accomplishment only, or is there something else afoot here?
The question becomes subsumed under an emerging mountain of wordless bliss as one lope leads to another, until I feel atop a wave of emotion, cruising at altitude, looking below and seeing naught but billowing clouds caressing my limbs, crawling up my rib cage and enveloping my heart, which at that second loves the world and everyone in it with such ardor and ferocity that I begin to sing aloud the words I know and “da da da da, pa pa pa pom” those I don’t, fighting for every breath I can manage to take.
“Oh-oh, come take my hand,
we’re riding out tonight
to case the promised land.”
This is what it means to be on top of the world—courtesy of moving toward it.
Turns out there is a raft of scientific research supporting the notion of a “runner’s high,” that feeling of euphoria that has been floating around the running community in particular and the wider exercise community in general the past few decades.
A June, 2023 study of studies in the science journal “The Neuroscientist” reiterated previous findings that contradicted long-held notions in the popular press that runner’s high is a product of endorphin molecules released in the blood through exercise.
Research has shown that water-oriented endorphins cannot cross the blood-brain barrier to affect one’s mood. Though much research remains to be done, a preponderance of scientists who have thus far studied the matter now suspect that exercise releases endocannabinoids (eCBs)—biochemical substances that resemble cannabis but are naturally produced by the body.
A Johns Hopkins University study stated the following:
Unlike endorphins, endocannabinoids can move easily through the cellular barrier separating the bloodstream from the brain, where these mood-improving neuromodulators promote short-term psychoactive effects such as reduced anxiety and feelings of calm.
Of these eCBs, anandamide (AEA), a fatty acid and neurotransmitter known to positively affect mood, was found to increase after exercise in 82% of the studies reviewed by “The Neuroscientist.”
Interestingly, besides its presence in cannabis products, AEA is also found in dark chocolate, truffles, and black pepper, among other sources, though exercise perhaps works with other factors to pack a more powerful punch than dietary supplements alone.
That’s close, in a watered-down, summarized way, to what we know now. And as always, the scientists offering these observations strongly advise “more research” to confirm and increase our understanding.
So: science certainly provides tantalizing clues about exercise’s effect on mood and capacity for a certain mixture of calm, well-being and euphoria. “OnTopOfTheWorldness” might be as accurate a descriptor as anything else, and though most of the prevailing literature zeroes in on running and cycling’s release of AEA, I have myself noted very similar feelings during vigorous hiking and most certainly during (and especially after) water exercise.
Movement that gets muscles engaged and blood flowing is the key, I am firmly convinced. But no one needs to run hills (nor run at all) to benefit from the effect. That’s just a peculiarity of mine, and I am fortunate indeed to still be capable of it (for now!).
The key is just to do what you can do, however limited it may be. Then build on that.
And if you can figure out how to get at least a little bit breathless or right on the edge of it and keep it up for as long as you are able, emerging from it tired but not beaten down, eventually you notice you feel refreshed in body and mind—even during the activity itself.
All of which puts spring back in your spirit and restores hope to your soul.
Such that in your own small, individual way, you will have contributed to the sum total of joy in a world that is sorely and forever in need of it.
I don’t mind saying I love this song and performance truly, madly, deeply…
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Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at top of page.
Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Bennett Peak and hilly street photos by Andrew Hidas https://www.flickr.com/photos/andrewhidas/
Kite runner by Brett Davies, Hikkaduwa, Sri Lanka https://www.flickr.com/photos/photosightfaces/
Toddler (my daughter, a long time ago) on a Monterey, California beach by Peter Hidas, my late brother
Morning exerciser by Emma Simpson, UK https://unsplash.com/@esdesignisms