The Exercise High Is for Real—but There’s Only One Way to Get It

Updated: Apr. 20, 2023

Are you incorporating this feel-good fitness approach into your exercise routine?

workoutSG SHOT/shutterstockHave you ever finished up an exercise and felt ready to conquer the world or noticed a significant boost in your mood? Maybe you’ve even felt a bit lusty after a trip to the gym? According to new research there’s a type of exercise that’s especially good at boosting your mood—you may already be doing it.

Findings from researchers at the University of Turku, published in Neuropsychopharmacology, show that the amount of feel-good endorphins our brain releases following exercise depends on the intensity of our workout, Science Daily reports—and building in short bouts of intensity increases the high.

For the study, participants received an injection of a radioactive compound which attaches to the brain’s opioid receptors, Science Daily explains. The brain was then measured with a PET scanner in three different conditions: After an hour of aerobic moderate-intensity exercise session, after an interval session (known as high-intensity interval training or HIIT), and after rest. The research found that a typical one-hour aerobic exercise routine didn’t do much for endorphins, while the interval session sent them soaring. (Rest, of course, did nothing.)

“Our results highlight that exercise intensity affects endorphin release and that the brain opioid system is involved in both positive and negative feelings caused by physical exercise performed at different intensities,” says doctoral candidate Tiina Saanijoki, one of the study authors.

In order to get the most endorphin release, you need to be incorporating interval workouts into your fitness regimen. Intervals simply mean that you alternate intense periods of exercise with active rest—you keep doing the same movement, but slow enough to catch your breath. Check out this this routine of running all out for 30 to 60 seconds and then slowing down to a walk.

Interval routines not only boosted the release of endorphins, but the level of opioid peptides also jumped—in the part of our brains that controls pain and emotion. Not surprisingly, the HIIT routines decreased the amount of negative feelings reported by the test subjects. While aerobic routines didn’t show the same amount of endorphins released, test subjects did experience feelings of pleasure and euphoria.

Based on the findings, researchers recommend adjusting your workout to incorporate intervals. The endorphin release from fast-paced running and jumping rope may encourage feeling the desire to exercise and help turn it into a habit. Watch the intensity though: When people overdo it, pain and negative feelings can be the takeaway. The study authors suggest being aware of your limits. If you’re new to exercise, here are some fitness considerations to keep in mind before starting.