Exercise and endorphins

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running shadowAmong the long list of benefits of sports and exercise are the opportunity to test oneself on a regular basis, improved health, a social outlet, a general sense of well-being, goal setting, and improvement in self-esteem. I would be remiss to omit endorphins from this inventory. Indeed, an endorphin surge might even top the list. Exercise and endorphins seem to go hand in hand.

According to the all-knowing Wikipedia, “Endorphins (“endogenous morphine”) are endogenous opioid neuropeptides. They are produced by the central nervous system and pituitary gland”. Endogenous means they are produced naturally by the body. Naturally!

You don’t have to buy endorphins or take them in a pill or make some kind of endorphin smoothie.

Apparently there are at least 20 types of endorphins, a fact which I just now found out. I erroneously thought there was just a single type of endorphin. No wonder they are so awesome, there a ton of different kinds. Well, that and the fact that endorphins interact with the opiate receptors in the brain acting in similar manner to narcotics such as morphine and codeine, which means that endorphins can reduce our perception of pain. The release of endorphins can also give athletes a feeling of euphoria (i.e. runners high), decrease appetite, reduce anxiety and increase the immune response. What a versatile little bugger.

Just writing this makes me want to go out and get some endorphins. That begs the question, how does one get endorphins? I looked up all sorts of peer-reviewed journal articles to get a very exact answer to share with you, but most of them were behind a pay wall. Some articles were as much as $40, which seems a little pricey when there is surely some free information out there somewhere. I did find a few interesting papers for free, including a nice 2006 review by Andrea Leuenberger1.

Lots of studies have been performed to determine the intensity or duration with which one must exercise to get an endorphin release, but, the results of have been inconsistent and conflicting. Adding to the complexity of this issue is that some people just naturally have more endorphins than others. Those low end people really got gypped.

My take on the situation is that everybody has a personal threshold with which they get a release of endorphins and each person’s subjective response to how the endorphins feel is different. Just like some people like a good buzz from a few drinks of alcohol while others do not. I personally rather enjoy a good endorphin surge, and that may be the route of my self-proclaimed exercise addiction.

This long winded discussion brings me to the point of my post, and that is the notion of the creation of an exercise endorphin scale which I hereby dub the EFG Scale (Exercise Feels Good).

Each activity has a different level of endorphin release and this will vary from person to person. I think the Visual Analog Scale (VAS), a measurement tool used assess a characteristic or attitude across a continuum (think of the pain scale at the doctor’s office), can be used to determine how many endorphins a bout of exercise is worth. You can start racking up EFG points by adding together points accumulated from bouts of exercise within a day, week, or month. Maybe Strava will adopt this scale and people can log their EFG points along with their workouts.

Here is an example of how the EFG Scale would work:

  1. What exercise did you do?
  2. How long did the bout of exercise last?
  3. How intense was the exercise (mild, moderate, hard)?
  4. How good did the exercise make you feel? (pick a number on the scale below)
Visual analog scale for endorphin release during exercise

With this method you can determine your personal EFG Quotient. The first three questions are really meant to set the stage for you to determine the intensity and duration along with the activity that gives you the most EFG points.

Lately, post-surgery, I have been relegated to mostly walking. For me, walking has a very low EFG Quotient. Like, really low.

Let’s take last Tuesday morning.
1. What exercise did you do? Walking
2. How long did the bout of exercise last? 60 minutes
3. How intense was the exercise (mild, moderate, hard)? Mild
4. How good did the exercise make you feel? 2

After surgery, I took two walks per day which gave me 4 points on the EFG Scale each day. Normally, I run or swim at a moderate to high intensity which can give me anywhere from 5-10 EFG points, and I do one or two sessions each day. I don’t ever complete two sessions of 10 EFG points in a single day, so I would say that my normal daily total is roughly 5-15 EFG points.

You can see, then, that recovery from surgery has left me with a huge EFG point deficit compared to my normal weekly regimen. And, since endorphins can have an analgesic affect and reduce depression and anxiety, it behooves me to get back to running so I can increase my endorphin load! But, I can unequivocally say that my daily 4 EFG points was better than 0 EFG points and those 4 meager points have greatly facilitated my recovery.

As a matter of fact, as someone who has dealt with chronic pain for almost 6 years, EFG points were my salvation.

EFG points enhanced my mood, even in the darkest of days, and decreased my need for narcotics.

Use this handy tool to determine your daily EFG points. Track your points and see how they correlate with your mood or your productivity or your health. Don’t be surprised if there is a positive correlation between them. If you find yourself in a snit, or if you have a propensity for depression or anxiety, or if you have some pain, go out and generate some EFG points as they are bound to make you feel better.

1Leuenberger, A. (2006) Endorphins, Exercise and Addiction: A Review of Exercise Dependence. Impulse: The Premier Journal for Undergraduate Publications in the Neurosciences. Pages 1-9. (that is the most egotistical journal title I have ever seen…)

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