Having trained over 100 clients and being in fitness/nutrition field for a long time now, I have certainly seen an interesting array of characters and behavior. Though there is indeed a rash of humans who do not seem to believe in exercise or activity at all, there is also an opposite end of the spectrum, where folks don’t seem to realize there is indeed a limit to how much they can, and should, work out.
As most people know, there is a chemical cascade of changes that occur when exercise begins and even after it ends. It is the only endogenous stress reliever, and the colloquial “runner’s high” is consistent with similar chemical and brain changes seen when ingesting junk food or even doing illegal drugs. Granted, the changes are associated with activity and not entirely the same, but nonetheless, the fact is your brain chemistry is changing, at least temporarily.
No doubt, you know someone who gets grouchy without their morning cup of coffee. Have you ever met someone who is grouchy when they don’t get their workout in? I have.
So what exactly is going on here? How can a simple, seemingly positive activity lead to addiction and unhealthy behaviors? Well, quite honestly, any behavior and habit can be taken too far. Chemically is where it gets interesting.
Opioids are commonly thought as being a part of illegal drugs. However, there are also endogenous opioids. These can be released during exercise. Specifically, the endogenous opioids beta-endorphin and beta-lipotrophin. These are part of why exercise is commonly recommended for depression and other similar psychiatric situations.
There is ‘exercise-induced euphoria’ which is most commonly seen as “runner’s high”. But there is quite a bit more going on inside your body when you are exercising. The hormones that can be involved in exercise include, but are not limited to: growth hormone, cortisol, prolactin, adrenocorticotropic hormone, and catecholamines.
Interestingly, researchers have found that exercise-induced beta-endorphin alterations are related to what kind of exercise that is undertaken, and may vary with different populations. This helps to explain the hyper-competitive folks I’ve worked with and been friends with. Their brain chemistry is, arguably, different. From a psychology perspective, how much of this behavior is learned and how much is intrinstic?
With organized sports beginning so early in life, it becomes difficult to tell. So how much is too much? Are you exercising when you’re exhausted? Are you exercising when you’re injured? Are you exercising when you are sleep-deprived? I commonly see people undertake exercise when they match all three of those descriptions. Not so great, right?
So why are they doing this? Is it out of good habit? Or is it simply because they can’t go without their daily change of biochemistry? I will admit, I’ve teetered the line myself, usually due to peer pressure. The only problem with making your circle of friends a healthy, fit group, is that sometimes you need to be at the gym just to see your friends. Intrinsically, you can see the problem.
Interestingly, and somewhat humorously, researchers have entitled one study “Endorphins: Opiates For The Masses”. This really puts the true chemical nature of the issue, into stark perspective. As they state “exercise-induced changes in circulating catecholamines are markedly enhanced by the opiate antagonist naloxone”. This is interesting, because naloxone is usually used to counteract the effect of narcotic drugs after surgery.
The brain’s ‘pleasure center’ is the nucleus accumbens. Is this activated during exercise? Absolutely! As stated by many researchers, and as outlined thus far in this article, this is the underlying basis for exercise addiction. This is a very real phenomenon, with craving, withdrawal and tolerance all exhibited. This becomes a tricky area, with interesting, obvious overlaps to something such as food addiction. Since some exercise is indeed psychologically beneficial, it becomes a difficult area to navigate regarding quantity.
The health benefits of exercise are numerous, and include, but are not limited to: endocrine system functioning, better muscle tone, better cardiovascular system functioning, and long term benefits in mental cognition and mood. It also helps to deal with stress, both mental and physical. Increases in brain-derived neurotrophic factor are also seen, and this becomes vital, in fighting the aging process.
Besides, or perhaps due to, the release of endorphins, we see levels of acute anxiety diminish in the short term of exercise. Interestingly, we also see some pose the argument that endorphins from exercise do not cross the blood-brain barrier. There are other numerous neuronal changes that may be occurring in a situation such as this, but the question remains somewhat unanswered, at least definitively.
There are, of course, similar molecules called enkephalins, and these, along with endorphins, can sometimes be synthesized inside the brain itself, rendering the earlier blood-brain barrier argument null and void.
When we look closer, we see three areas of the brain activated during exercise which may be responsible for the pleasure exerted during strenuous activity. These areas are the insula, anterior cingulate cortex, and the prefrontal cortex. Of course, this is an overly simplistic, and far from a definitive, theory.
Remember, your brain and body are very complex, diverse systems. To attribute any one, singular attribute to the pleasure of exercise is to make an erroneous statement. If you are exercising more than one time per day, or are exercising intensely more than 5 times per week, you are likely caught in this cycle.
Those familiar with competitive, high-level sports, will recognize these training markers and durations as ‘usual’. What does this tell you about an overall healthy lifestyle? Perhaps it is incongruent with competitive, high-level sports? I would argue, that yes, indeed, it is.
Endocannabinoids are another type of molecule that may contribute to the pleasure of exercise. They can move throughout the body and are likely in the brain, helping to add to the pleasure of exercise. Interestingly, tetrahydrocannabinol is the main element of marijuana, which induces a high. Endocannabinoids and tetrahydrocannabinol are very much related, at least neurologically. Are you beginning to see why, both internally and externally, why a human being may become addicted to exercise?
Interestingly, but perhaps a foregone conclusion based on the information already covered in this article, researchers have shown a rewarding response to exercise via dopamine receptors (specifically D1 receptors). This is, again, identical to other addictions, such as alcohol, cocaine, food (yes, food) etc.
How your brain responds to these activities and comes to expect and crave them is almost exactly the same. Think about that for a minute. As can clearly be seen, however, exercise stimulates powerful brain changes and processes. Exercise can help to grow new brain cells, through a process called neurogenesis. Cutting it out entirely would be foolish and a mistake.
Your central nervous system responds favorably to exercise, and definitely needs some, continuously, throughout life, to maintain optimal health, both mentally and physically. So how do we know when enough is enough? Well, a general and very easily employed guideline is to move a little bit every day. Whether this means walking for 45 minutes, strength training for that amount of time, or jogging, is up to you. And don’t limit yourself. You can swim, bike, rock climb, etc.
Going through a hard break up? Maybe you exercise a little bit more. Going through lots of stress at work? Maybe hit the weights a bit harder. Or, and this is a tough recommendation for United States citizens to endure – go to sleep a little bit earlier. Extra sleep is one of the most anabolic, and physiologically beneficial things you can do for yourself. However, these days it is increasingly difficult to ‘unplug’ and ‘turn off’.
If you find yourself exercising excessively, perhaps you should consider why this is. Maybe there is an underlying psychological reason? Maybe you aren’t happy with your job, you’re trying to avoid facing something, you’re compensating for low self-esteem – I have seen and dealt with all of these problems and many even stranger ones.
The release of ‘feel good’ chemicals via exercise is nothing new, nothing unsurprising, and nothing out of the ordinary. And while it is true that in our country we face a bigger problem of sedentary life and obesity, the phenomenon of TOFI – thin on the outside, fat on the inside – is still a real issue. Just because you see someone going to the gym every day, and counting their calories and working out vigorously does not necessarily mean they are healthy.
Do you have a problem with too much exercise? Or do you know someone who does? Let us know in the comments!