Study Proves Runner's High More Than a Myth
> 3/27/2008 12:22:48 PM

Most of us have experienced the manner in which physical exercise improves our motor function, but only relatively recently have scientists been able to show that it also improves cognitive function. Just one example of the ample research making this point: in a story last week, we discussed MRI scans that demonstrated a direct bolstering of white matter against the depredations of age. However, most of the exercise studies track only long-term structural changes in the brain. That is why it was such a breakthrough when Dr. Henning Boecker's team successfully examined an ephemeral phenomenon-- the runner's high.

Runner's high is a euphoric feeling that some runners say they have experienced after intense exertion. Because the experience occurs without apparent pattern or objective method of confirmation, it has been relegated to urban legend status for many years. While runners willingly endure shin-splints and fatigue to complete a marathon, few came forward for the dual spinal taps that seemed necessary to prove that runner's high was a physical phenomenon. Normal blood tests drawn from the body found nothing that would pass the blood-brain-barrier, and the mystery might have remained unresolved indefinitely.

Fortunately, Dr. Boecker developed a less painful way to test his hypothesis that runner's high is caused by opioids. In his study, which appeared in the February issue of Cerebral Cortex, Dr. Boecker injected runners with radioactive isotopes that bind to opioids. Then he PET scanned subjects before and after a two-hour run, finding elevated levels of opioids in the frontolimbic regions of the brain that regulate mood. Opioid levels directly correlated with self-reports of the intensity of euphoria, establishing a clear link from running to opioid release to feeling good.

The confirmation of runner's high is an addition to a swiftly growing body of research showing that our minds can be protected and even boosted by physical exercise. Not only can years of exercise decrease the risk of dementia down the line, but it seems that even single sessions can confer an immediate benefit. Humans were not designed to lounge the day away in front of computer screens. Opioids are our brain's way of encouraging us to stay active, a message that would be wise to heed as soon as you finish this article.

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