Monday, March 03, 2008

Study: Climber's High No Myth

No doubt you have heard of the "runner's high," which is the buzz achieved by an endurance workout. It has long been speculated that this blissful feeling results from the release of endorphin, a natural opiate produced by the body, but it had never been proven and some scientists considered this a myth.

Recently, scientists in Germany demonstrated that two hours of running does indeed cause the brain to release endorphins. In addition, the opiates preferentially bind to the prefrontal and limbic areas of the brain, which are involved with emotional processing and the suppression of pain.
As reported in the journal Cerebral Cortex, ten runners worked out for two hours and then underwent a PET scan. This is similar to a CT scan that digitally dissects the body except a radioactive isotope is injected into the bloodstream and the PET detects where it is metabolically active. In the case of the runners, the scan showed that opiate receptors in the brain after exercise were occupied by far greater amounts of endorphin. This also corresponded to an increase of euphoria and happiness at the end of the runs; the more intense the feelings, the more endorphin was binding to receptors.
While this study was conducted on runners, it also applies to all athletes and you don't have to work for two hours to experience it. Runners, cyclists, and other endurance athletes can fairly easily get into the "zone" after a half hour of working out.
It's fair to say that most climbers feel a strong buzz when they get to the top of a long, strenuous pitch. We may get a similar feeling on easier terrain only after a lot of vertical gain. In the case of crack climbing, that endorphin blast helps us ignore the pain in our feet. Climbers are frequently accused of being adrenalin junkies but we may really just be addicted to endorphin.

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