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Runner's High? Yeah, Right

If you're like me, you hate those exercise fanatics who are always bragging about how much better they feel after a good work-out. Anxious or depressed? Go to the gym, they say. You'll feel better. Need a rush? Jog until you're ready to drop and get that "runner's high."

Yeah, right.

All I ever feel after dragging myself to the gym is sweaty and hot and ready for a good nap, or maybe a beer. Or both. And not necessarily in that order.

Now, there's some new research that could explain all that.

Marleen De Moor of the VU University in Amsterdam realized that none of the studies linking exercise to lower levels of anxiety and depression had really proven a cause-and-effect relationship. All they showed was an association-- that people who tended to be more physically active also tended to report less anxiety and depression.

So, in the first study of its kind, De Moor and her colleagues analyzed data collected about nearly 6,000 twins ages 18 to 50, as well as some of their siblings and parents, between 1991 and 2002.

To their surprise, the researchers found that among the identical twins, exercise had no independent effect on anxiety or depression. A twin who exercised a lot was just as likely to have those problems as his or her couch potato twin. If one twin started hitting the gym, or stopping working out, their anxiety and depression was unchanged. When the researchers compared identical twins to non-identical twins, any relationship between exercise and mood was completely explained by genes.

All this suggests that the effects of exercise on mood is built into each of us: The twins who benefited from exercise appear to have genes that predispose them to the psychological benefits of physical activity. No one knows what those genes are. But De Moor, who reported her findings this week in the August issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry, speculates that they might have something to do with regulating the brain chemicals serotonin and dopamine.

Now, De Moor stresses that this doesn't mean that some people don't get a lot of pleasure from working out. But it may mean that exercise doesn't do the trick for everybody. It may just help those who are genetically programmed that way, and those are the ones who are motivated to do it.

For the rest of us, a work-out just feels like, well, work. It doesn't mean we shouldn't do it -- it helps keep the weight off, our bones strong and our hearts healthy, among other things. But just don't expect us to be all that happy about it.

How about you? Does working out boost your mood? Or is like flossing your teeth?

By Rob Stein  |  August 7, 2008; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Nutrition and Fitness  
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looking at myself after working on regularly boosts my mood. that's all I need...

Posted by: jj | August 7, 2008 10:49 AM | Report abuse

I definitely find that a regular regimen of running (in my case, 6 miles x 3 times a week) regulates my entire system: my ability to handle stress, my appetite, and my sleep, among other things. However, I've always wondered what a runner's high is, as I don't believe I've ever experienced it; I imagine it to be a feeling of euphoria or a buzz, and the most I can ever attest to is a feeling of accomplishment after the run.

Posted by: Amit | August 7, 2008 11:14 AM | Report abuse

I recently joined a local gym and haven't worked up to running yet. I've always been an avid walker. With the high-tech treadmills I can check my heart rate and have found when I hit the aerobic heart rate while walking (3.5 mph) I do feel like I've accomplished something. (I'm from a genetically depressed family -- it's in our genes, no amount of running/workouts/treadmills will fix it.)

Posted by: Walker on a Treadmill.... | August 7, 2008 11:57 AM | Report abuse

Using our bodies is one of the primary pleasures in life. Just about everything kids do at a playground outside of the sandbox is exercise. Adults who have lost touch with that enjoyment have done the equivalent of removing their tastebuds.

Unfortunately we make exercise more likely to be viewed as a chore. Most gyms don't have basketball courts, volleyball nets or tetherball poles. What they do have is rows of dull equipment. No kid on earth would want to play on an elliptical machine. You never get to go downhill on a stationary bike. There's no passing scenery. Where's the fun in that? Even the classes such as spin and yoga don't really qualify as play.

Television sets and headphone connections reinforce the notion that exercise is something that requires mental escape from, rather than itself being an escape from other things.

And gyms are geared toward keeping members antisocial: The aforementioned headphones plus many gyms have rules about members leaving each other alone. Maybe such rules are to discourage pick-up artists, but on the whole exercising in a gym is a solitary experience. And people don't much like solitary.

Members of running and biking groups tend to stick at their activities because most groups maintain the element of play -- postrace parties, chitchat after and during rides and runs. More than once I've seen members of runner groups who didn't even join a group run that day show up later during Gatorade time just to be with their friends.

Running and biking and skiing have strong social aspects. There are communities and websites and clubs. There are no organizations of stairclimber enthusiasts. It's much easier to stick with exercise when doing it is a social appointment.

People who say they hate exercise remind me of kids who say they hate breakfast. Most kids who say they hate it don't hate eating in the morning, they just don't like the eggs, bacon, toast and other foods they're told equals breakfast. But offer them chicken fingers or macaroni and cheese in the morning and they're fine with it. Most adults who say they hate exercise don't hate using their bodies, they hate the rowing machines and other contrived dullatronic devices they wrongly believe is an inextricable part of exercise.

I've known some older people who say they loathe exercise -- just can't stand it. Gyms are ridiculous and there's no way you could get them in those silly clothes. Exercise is not for them, thank you very much. Then they go work in their gardens with an intensity and endurance that would make a mule keel over.

If you do something fun, physical fitness can be a by-product rather than a tiresomely labored-over goal.

Posted by: PK | August 7, 2008 12:24 PM | Report abuse

I'll have to agree with PK. I hated -- HATED -- gym class in middle school. It was required then but elective in high school so after 9th grade I never took another gym class. I really think it was the gang showers I hated most, and having to get dressed in 2 minutes out of a locker.

Now I don't mind doing the treadmill thing. I can plug into my music or watch the TVs they have lined along the wall. It's actually a meditative time for me.

Posted by: Walker on a Treadmill..... | August 7, 2008 1:27 PM | Report abuse

For years, after I exercised even lightly (walking 3 miles, for example), I'd feel like I was coming down with the flu - for days after. I don't do it any more - it's not worth it to me.

Posted by: howkim | August 8, 2008 9:12 AM | Report abuse

That's certainly a Groucho Marxian solution.

Posted by: The Peejster | August 8, 2008 10:34 AM | Report abuse

I've always enjoyed sports but never hit a gym until about 10 years ago and found to my surprise I really liked lifting weights so continue to work out after a knee replacement and although it is painful much of the time, the endorphins must kick in because even when tired and grumpy, I profit by a workout and I know I sleep better. Gym/'s a good thing.

Posted by: tchristo | August 9, 2008 4:23 PM | Report abuse

i definitely feel a boost after a nice job on the treadmill. i guess the effects of a good work out vary from person to person...

Posted by: christy | August 11, 2008 2:56 PM | Report abuse

Oh yes, I feel better after a run or a workout with weights. I don't know about mood per se because I think I am someone who has a contented nature, I am not prone to depression. But after a workout it is like I can feel my body hum, I feel more relaxed, less antsy. It mitigates the effects of overindulgence the night before, of mild colds, etc. At the same time, if I have a hard run and sit still for awhile I get stiff, it is hard to get up and moving again. But overall I definitely feel much better after a workout, even if I don't always feel that great during the workout - generally I am OK but sometimes, yes it feels like work. But it is worth it for the way I feel later and all day long.

Posted by: Catherine | August 14, 2008 11:23 AM | Report abuse

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