So, there I was atop a mountain, looking down at a forest unstained (for the most part) by humans. Below were deer, bear and wolves in the trees, fish and whales in the ocean. On the hill, just me and my endorphins.
The same thing happens in the gym, not the animals, the feeling. There’s just enough something happening to insulate from the pain and provide a mild euphoria upon completing a workout. You did something. You’re stoked, you’re jacked, you’re buzzed, you’re high. While it’s obvious the feeling of drinking too much coffee is much different than the feeling of crushing a hike, some of the modifiers are similar and future craving of that high is sure to follow.
What’s the difference?
I ran two marathons and discovered the “runner’s high” to be much less than that of highs produced by working out or hiking. For those who experience intense highs during or after running, I’m a little jealous. It may have been that my longest training run was 14 miles, so after 26.1 I felt a little beat up, but I won’t get into that.
Exercise makes us happy, we are familiar with that beautifully miserable feeling at the end of a workout, hike or ride, when we feel like we are doing life right, rather than just letting life happen to us. Endorphins are released during times of stress to insulate us from painful pain and make the pain almost enjoyable, especially the end. (There are theories that it might not be endorphins. A study by the National Academy of Sciences suggests the high could more akin to marijuana.)
Endorphins or endocannabinoids, it doesn’t really matter because the exercise high is the byproduct of exercise, so however it happens, it happens and it’s good. However, trying to replicate the high without the work can be hazardous.
Not all naps are created equal. Eat a bunch of sugar and you might feel buzzed, but the inevitable crash is not like wanting to snooze after working out. Your body reacted naturally to rigorous activity to produce the high and eventual need for quality sleep to repair. Artificially creating the high with something like sugar is different. Your body is reacting to a substance rather than an activity. It may have been cool to try and eat the entire foot-long Pixie Stick when you were 11 then “get all hyper” but you’re not 11 anymore. Whether or not sugar really causes hyperactivity is up for debate but the effects of sugar on the body are well documented. It tastes good and gives you energy but in doing so, excess sugar punishes the body and can turn your day into an endless set of energy undulations. As a result, this high should not be pursued because it’s fake energy and sugar is spiking chronic disease in the United States. If you do want to get off the sugar, do it. One of the benefits of increasing your fitness level, in addition to quitting or reducing the amount of simple sugars you ingest, is that natural sugars in things like fruit can provide enough of a fix. Plus, pie and ice cream taste so much better when you’ve earned them.
Caffeine stimulates the central nervous system and is how each productive day should be started, well, maybe not, but it’s not a bad way. Anyone who wasn’t convinced of the powers of coffee surely were after Mike Ditka’s motivational speech and training of Will Ferrell in Kicking and Screaming. The thing about coffee as part of your daily routine, is that you aren’t likely to sit on a couch watching Netflix and plow through pots of coffee like you would sweets or snacks.
The sad thing about this is that our modern world has trained us to sit around and be stimulated by other things. It doesn’t encourage us to find it ourselves, it says, “buy this, you’ll feel better” or “prescribe this, you’ll feel better.” Modern society has tricked us into living boring lives because we become dependent on other things to feel the high of living. This is stupid. We can do better. Find a mountain, find a lake. Find some peace. Enjoy it. Be your own good company. Get away from the flashy things the algorithms on your phone say are what you need. Reality is not in your pocket, it’s out there.
Jeff Lund is a freelance writer and high school teacher in Ketchikan, Alaska. His podcast The Mediocre Alaskan Podcast is available on iTunes and Spotify.