Can exercise really have the same effect as taking illegal drugs?

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It's Global Running Day. Lots of people are using the hashtag to encourage others to lace up their boots.

If you're reluctant, or if you're wondering how so many others find the motivation, you may be interested to learn about how running can actually get you high...

We spoke to physio Tim Cruse-Drew, who coached Eddie Izzard as he smashed his epic 27-marathons-in-27-days mission for Sport Relief earlier this year. Tim reckons he managed partly because he was as high as a kite... on exercise. We spoke to chartered physiotherapist Tim about the effects of exercise on the brain and body...

Can you actually get high from running?

Yes. In short. In a number of ways…

We have this amazing pharmacy in our brain and, through exercise, we can create heroin and cannabis substitutes.

Happy drugs are in the brain. Dopamine is a reward-based drug. If you set yourself a goal and you achieve it, you’ll get a dopamine surge because you feel good about yourself. It’s a nice drug. It makes us all feel happy.

Interestingly, there is also such a thing as ‘happy foods’ and they’re foods that are 50% fat and 50% sugar. When you eat a donut, you have a massive dopamine surge into the middle of the brain.


Another happy drug that the brain releases are endorphins. These are released when we do hard exercise. They’re morphine-based pain-relievers, essentially… like heroin. Compared to heroin, an endorphin molecule is probably a hundred times more powerful. You would need a lot of heroin to get the same effect as a small amount of endorphin.

When you take morphine, you can feel dreamy and pain-free. This is what endorphins do too and that’s why people get addicted to exercise. You can get this release fairly quickly – half an hour is enough.

On the other end of the scale, once you’ve been running for a few hours, the body then starts to produce anandamides. These are the natural cannabinoids, the natural marijuanas of the brain. These release different neuro-transmitters into the brain and allow us to exercise for long periods without pain. Again, anandamides are much more effective and specific to the brain than marijuana.

When Eddie finishes a marathon, he’s high. He’s always very happy - laughing and joking. We get lots of funny stories from him after he’s just finished running.


There must be an almighty come-down too then, presumably?

The interesting thing is that, because it’s natural and he’s not getting a spike surge, he won’t get the same comedown. What tends to happen is that he goes to sleep and, by the time he’s woken up, everything has normalised again.

It’s not like taking drugs, where you get the hedonistic peak and then the payback. My advice is, give up the drugs and start running - it’s much cheaper and more effective.

There you go. A cheaper, cleaner, healthier alternative.