Here are the reasons why you might not get that high after working out – and how you can adjust your routine to stay motivated.
It’s 8.30pm on a rainy Thursday night and I’ve just finished an intense circuit class. After two rounds of bear crawls, kettlebell swings, plank walks and sprints, we’re being put through a punishing frog squat routine to end the session.
As our trainer counts down the 30-second finishing squat, the class members are sprawled across the floor in various states of sweat and pain. But while most people are laughing and smiling through their grimaces, I can’t feel much besides the lactic acid in my thighs.
“Don’t you just love that rush of endorphins?” my workout buddy grins at me. Actually, I don’t feel it – and it’s something I’ve noticed for a long time now.
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After a run, I’ve googled, “Why don’t I feel endorphins after exercise?” and wondered why I wasn’t ‘normal’. I’ve even been in tears at the climax of a PT session – quite the opposite of the ‘runner’s high’ sensation most people describe after their cool down. Turns out, I’m not alone. There are multiple Reddit threads dedicated to asking the same question, without a solid answer.
What impacts our ability to feel an endorphin rush?
Poor mental health and mental health medication
I’ve been wondering whether this lack of endorphins is down to my mental health. I take medication to help stave off depression and to keep my anxiety in check. While exercise is undoubtedly beneficial for my moods in the long run, it’s hard to convince my brain to lace up my trainers when I get no immediate ‘reward’ for moving my body. Well-meaning friends use the boost of feel-good hormones I’ll feel post-workout as motivation, telling me to ‘push through it’ and that I’ll ‘feel amazing afterwards’. They struggle to understand that, to me, those endorphins are elusive.
To understand why I might be feeling this way, I speak to Dr Hana Patel, GP and mental health coach.
“Endorphins are a group of hormones released by the brain when we’re in situations of pain or stress, such as broken bones, or pleasurable stress, like eating spicy food, exercise or sex,” she explains. “They make us feel energised and give us a natural ‘high’ and work to reduce the perception of pain we may feel during exercise.”
While I wondered if my anxiety and depression affected my endorphin production, Dr Patel suggests that it could be the other way around. “People who have a reduced production of endorphins may suffer from depression, mood swings or joint pains,” she says. However, she is clear that research into this link is ongoing and that anxiety and depression are not always linked to low endorphin production.
As for whether my medication could be affecting my endorphins, it’s complicated. “Endorphins work with the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine to regulate our mood. Antidepressants boost these levels of neurotransmitters and can increase particular types of endorphins, but this is not their main mechanism of action,” Dr Patel says.
Sharnade George, psychotherapist and founder of Culture Minds Therapy, agrees that more research is needed into why people who have low levels of endorphins may be more likely to have mental or physical health conditions. “While there have not been many studies that prove certain medications are the cause of people not feeling endorphins, it’s important that if you are experiencing side effects that you speak to your doctor,” George adds.
So why don’t I – and many others – feel endorphins post-gym class? According to Dr Patel, there are a lot of factors at play.
To start, it could be genetic. “Some people do a lot of exercise and never experience a runner’s high. Evidence has shown that genetics could lead to different people producing different levels of endorphins,” she says.
Chronic pain and substance abuse
Dr Patel suggests that the long-term consumption of alcohol, misusing opiate medications like codeine and morphine and living with conditions like fibromyalgia, chronic pain and exercise addiction could also negatively impact endorphin production.
Types of exercise
The lack of feel-good hormones could also be down to the types of exercises we’re doing and how much we enjoy doing them. “Different exercises could lead us to produce different levels of endorphins, with studies saying that high-intensity exercises (HIIT) produce the most,” she shares.
However, not looking forward to an exercise or even working out too hard could dampen your endorphin release.
Pregnancy and postnatal depression
Sarah Campus, a level 3 qualified personal trainer and founder of Ldn Mums Fitness, adds that endorphin production could also be affected by pregnancy. Endorphin levels can be elevated throughout pregnancy, especially in the latter stages, but lower levels have been linked to postnatal depression. Campus also says that you’re likely to get a higher release of endorphins working out postpartum than if you didn’t hit the gym while pregnant, as your body will remember the exercise.
How to feel motivated to exercise without an endorphin rush
It’s clear that endorphin production, or lack thereof, doesn’t have one neat cause. Instead, it could be affected by a range of physical and mental contexts. But how can you motivate yourself to keep moving without that rush? Yanar Alkayat, a level 3 qualified PT, recommends asking yourself why you want or need to exercise in the first place.
“There’s more to exercise than just chasing endorphins, and high-intensity workouts – where a rush of feel-good endorphins is typically experienced – are not the only way to feel motivated. You might move to avoid stiffness or pain, counteract eight hours at a desk, improve flexibility or mobility or enjoy time outside in nature, which might also recharge you mentally. You might play a team sport or train solo to work on a fitness skill. Or you might simply feel motivated by the desire to be stronger and feel healthier today or for years to come,” she says.
“These aspects of fitness might not necessarily deliver that dose of endorphins runners boast about, but stopping to remember why you need to exercise will help you get your kit on. Whether you’re low in motivation, feeling cosy in bed, exhausted from a long day or you simply CBA, that’s when you need to bring your ‘why’ to mind,” she adds.
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Campus encourages you to find an exercise you enjoy – perhaps with friends or set to your favourite music – or treating yourself to a reward after getting sweaty. The more you look forward to your session, it’s possible that you might be more likely to feel an endorphin release.
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