Exercising has a laundry list of benefits: it minimizes your risk of developing heart disease, lowers the chance of early death, makes you stronger and can increase the hormones in your body that help you fight stress and feel better.
When it comes to those hormones, endorphins are often the most closely associated with exercise, and the phrase “endorphin high” or “runners high” come front of mind. According to Dr. Elizabeth C. Gardner, orthopaedics sports medicine surgeon at Yale Health, “endorphins are basically the body’s feel-good neurotransmitters.”
They bind to the opioid receptors in the brain and “are involved in the things we attribute to opioids and narcotics — both in reducing the body’s perception of pain, as well as that feeling of euphoria that can happen,” Gardner said. (But it’s worth noting that these chemicals are made and regulated by your body, so there is no risk of overdose or addiction, she added.)
While running is the most studied in terms of endorphins, there are other workouts you can do to get that happy feeling, and when you do certain workouts for a certain amount of time you may even experience more long-lasting happiness because of the associated endorphin release.
Here’s when you can expect to notice an endorphin rush and the best workouts to do for that rush, according to experts.
People experience feel-good workout hormones at different times depending on their bodies and the exercise.
Some people feel a rush 10 minutes into a workout, while others don’t feel the good mood come on for an hour after exercising. While when you feel endorphins varies, there are other feel-good neurotransmitters that are also released during exercise, Gardner said, and you may be able to experience those faster.
So, that high you’re experiencing in your workout may not actually be a result of endorphins.
“Things like serotonin [and] norepinephrine are also released during exercise and the thought is they’re actually released sooner than the endorphins,” Gardner said. These other neurotransmitters have calming effects and anti-stress effects that bring you to that feel-good place — and help encourage you to lace up your shoes and exercise.
All that to say, though, to get to the true endorphin release, you have to do a little bit longer of a workout, she added.
As you probably expect, longer bouts of exercise mean more endorphins.
“Longer cardiovascular exercise has a more pronounced increase in endorphins,” said Heather Milton, an exercise physiologist supervisor at NYU Langone’s Sports Performance Center. “Endorphins are released at the onset of exercise, but they are not peaked in total volume circulating for some time.”
When you’ll experience an endorphin high varies from person to person, but it is often agreed that it occurs after 60 minutes of continuous exercise, she added.
Now, if you’re like many, many people who don’t normally work out for 60 minutes at a time, you can still experience endorphins. Milton said that some people do experience endorphins after 30 minutes — but it’s important to remember that this timeline can differ greatly. And some experts think you can experience endorphins in even less time.
Moderate exercise can still lead to an endorphin release.
According to Gardner, a recent study found that shorter bouts of moderate-intensity exercise, 15 to 20 minutes a couple of times a week, can bring about a steady state increase in endorphins.
Dr. George Eldayrie, a sports medicine physician at Orlando Health, defined a moderate-intensity workout as when your heart rate is elevated, you’re sweating and you’re a little out of breath. If “it’s a little bit of a struggle having a conversation with someone, you’re probably at that moderate level,” he said.
For reference, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention categorizes cycling, water aerobics and playing doubles tennis as moderate workouts.
So, while you likely won’t be getting that “runners high” as a result of moderate exercise, you will experience some “baseline mood-elevating effects [that] just kind of keep you happier,” Gardner said.
And that super-high endorphin spike goes away faster than lower-level endorphins. Those lower-level endorphins will likely stick with you longer and are also what encourage you to go back to that moderate-intensity exercise throughout the week, she noted.
As we head into colder and shorter days, ongoing endorphins sound pretty great. “It’s nice to have something that can give you that feeling day to day,” Gardner said.
High-intensity interval training results in more of an endorphin burst.
Eldayrie stated that a recent Finnish study compared one-hour moderate-intensity workouts with one-hour high-intensity workouts and found that higher-intensity exercises, particularly high-intensity interval training (HIIT), resulted in more of an endorphin release overall.
So, it can be expected that if you do a HIIT workout, you’ll experience a higher amount of endorphins, Eldayrie noted.
But he added that in the study, participants were polled to see how much they enjoyed the exercise after the fact. “The ones who did moderate [exercise] actually enjoyed it more, so they were a little bit happier even though they had less endorphin release as opposed to the ones who did the high-intensity [workout].”
This could be because the HIIT workout was more uncomfortable, Eldayrie noted. Gardner added that in the case of this study, the endorphins were not able to mask the pain associated with a HIIT workout.
“A lot of people think moderate levels of intensity may be best because you don’t get those negative psychological feelings with it, and that may actually help to contribute to general positive feelings about the exercise and may make it easier to continue to do the exercise,” Gardner said.
Exercises that involve large muscle groups and group fitness classes are ideal for endorphin release.
Beyond focusing on the time it takes to get an endorphin release, there are other ways to help guarantee the arrival of this happy hormone.
“Weightlifting, specifically bench presses, deadlifts and leg presses — exercises that are using large muscle groups — have been thought to be particularly good at bringing about endorphin release,” Gardner said.
Additionally, studies show that people who did exercises that use large muscle groups (like jogging, swimming and cycling) saw an improvement in anxiety and depression.
It’s also been said that group exercise may be better for the release of endorphins, Gardner added. This could be because of the positive feelings associated with group environments or the peer pressure that comes with group fitness. You will probably be less likely to quit your workout early if there are people all around you doing the same challenging fitness class.
In the end, do a workout you like and you’ll probably feel some sense of happiness after the fact.
“I wouldn’t recommend that people chase which exercise is going to have the highest release of endorphins,” Eldayrie said. “It’s kind of dependent, and I think the factor of enjoyability with exercise is important.”
If you are doing a workout you enjoy, you’ll be more likely to continue doing that workout and reaping all of the benefits of exercise.
“Generally speaking, if you exercise and you’re getting to at least that moderate intensity level, you’re going to have that endorphin release,” he added.
And even if you’re working out at a lower level, you’ll still likely feel the release of some feel-good hormones.