Beyond endorphins: More biochemical reasons why running can make you happy (it’s all about dopamine and leptin)

For many people, the excitement of running is about putting on your shoes and setting yourself free to feel the sun on your face and the wind in your hair.

For others, it is about the burn of the workout and the results thereof. But without a doubt, everyone who gets their blood pumping has experienced the euphoria that sweeps your body as you relax, when all is said and done.

What you’re feeling may not be endorphins alone, however. A study at the University of Montreal Hospital Research Centre (CRCHUM) shows that the “runner’s high” phenomenon is also caused by dopamine, an important neurotransmitter for motivation.

“We discovered that the rewarding effects of endurance activity are modulated by leptin, a key hormone in metabolism. Leptin inhibits physical activity through dopamine neurons in the brain,” said Stephanie Fulton, a researcher at the CRCHUM and lead author of an article published in the journal Cell Metabolism.

Leptin exists within fat cells, and causes us to feel either feel satiated, or gives us motivation to run.

It is within our instincts to run (in search for food) when we have less leptin in our body, and the urgency to be active disappears when we are full and no longer need to search for food. This study suggests that leptin plays a critical role both in regulating energy balance and encouraging behaviors that are “rewarding” for the person’s metabolism, i.e., engaging in physical activity to find food.

And is leptin as important for motivation to be active in humans? Yes. “Previous studies have clearly shown a correlation between leptin and marathon run times. The lower leptin levels are, the better the performance,”said Fulton.



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