Why does exercise feel good?

After years of powerlifting training I started to learn that no matter how many aches or pains I had, I would ALWAYS feel better after I left the gym.

If you talk to people who are still training hard, runners, or any ole exercise nut in their 40’s and 50’s, they’ll tell you the best they feel all day is when they’re moving. For runners, they call it the runner’s high.

For a lot of people, just the start of a good warm up can have a hugely uplifting impact on their mood.

Now, if you’ve made your way to this blog you are probably an advocate of exercise, so I’m not going to bore with you all the sweet advantages of being a gym rat.

You probably know them already, #gainz. Instead, I’ll jump right into the research and the interesting cellular level explanations of why exercise “feels good.”

The common anecdotes listed above are exemplary of the short term “feel good” benefits of exercise.

Research has shown these short term benefits to be a combined result of high activation of the anterior pituitary gland and the pre-frontal and limbic regions of the brain, areas highly associated with endorphin release and positive emotions, as well as improved endocannabinoid release and receptor sensitivity (4-6).

What we don’t know as much about are the long term benefits exercising can have on how we perceive pain.

Below you will find a quick review on a 2016 research article offering a unique scientific look at why exercising helps with pain.

Warning- some of this gets a little sciencey!

In 2016, researchers sought to better understand this phenomenon of exercise-induced analgesia (the reduction of pain) as both an acute and chronic response to physical exertion.

They knew that interleukin-10, an anti-inflammatory protein, was increased during exercise.

They also knew that interleukin-10 can reduce the sensitivity of receptors that carry nociception signals to the brain (nociception is what used to be called pain signals, but now we understand it as elevated levels of sensory response, whereas pain is a more complicated thing that we will discuss in more detail in the future).

They wanted to see the what the interplay of inflammatory mediating macrophages in this process was as well.

The purpose of the study was to investigate objective data of how long term exercise can influence our biological ability to deal with nociception and what the impact would be on pain. In order to better understand chronic pain, nonspecific pain, and medicine as a whole, they wanted to prove this phenomenon of exercise-induced analgesia.

This was a biological level study conducted on mice, and therefore, it cannot be used to draw definitive conclusions about humans… the level of evidence is just too low.

HOWEVER, it gets us going in the right direction and supports what we already understand.

Cellular level research designed to help understand underlying biological and physiological mechanisms of the body.

It is early research, but still important nonetheless.

What did they do?

There were two groups of mice, an active group and a sedentary group.

The active group had a wheel to run on and the sedentary did not.

At the end of 8 weeks, the percentage of anti-inflammatory mediating macrophages was found to be 68.5% in the exercise group compared to 45.8% in the sedentary group (1).

Almost a 25% increase in cellular components used to regulate pain!

If you had to make a pitch for this concept in an elevator, the headache is an easily relatable analogy.

Everyone knows you can get a headache from hunger, fatigue, or stress.

Lower your stress, decrease your fatigue, and maintain a consistent schedule of sleeping and eating healthfully, the less headaches or migraines you might experience.

This is oftentimes referred to as best practice: the art of optimizing your bodily functions.

We are now starting to understand best practice applies to movement and body pain as well.

Put simply, you can get a backache from being sedentary. AND, you can probably help a backache by reversing that sedentary process.

Not all pain has complex biomechanical explanations and many times the solution to pain is simple: move more.

Albeit this research is early, it contributes to the idea that chronic or nonspecific aches and pains you feel in your body may have a contributor that is as deep as the cellular level.

But what do we do with this? How do we use this information?

Sometimes, you just gotta get out there and as scientists say: test the hypothesis. What’s the worst that can happen?

Although this study can’t be definitively applied to humans, it serves to defend the argument that non-specific exercise can be effective for reducing pain (2).

In the context of cellular level changes, it also shows that not every exercise done for pain control needs to be “corrective” or have a biomechanical explanation.

The most important thing to remember is that long term pain control can be made much more effective through regular exercise (3).

If you have a friend or family member that’s not been in pain and hasn’t found answers, sometimes something as simple as a walking program can help them to get going down the right path (bad pun) and improve the quality of their life!

Should your friend or family be looking for some guidance and take up an exercising routine, we have base phases in our workout programs – Foundational Strength and Sustainable Strength – that are meant for people who are new to exercising.

If a more individualized program is in need with more coaching guidance, we have a highly qualified staff of coaches who can help those in pain!

As our friend Nick Hannah says, don’t sit still, make moves!

The Citizen Athletics Team,



1. Leung A1, Gregory NS, Allen LA, Sluka KA,  Regular physical activity prevents chronic pain by altering resident muscle macrophage phenotype and increasing interleukin-10 in mice. Pain. 2016 Jan;157(1):70-9.


2. Slade SC, et al. What are patient beliefs and perceptions about exercise for nonspecific chronic low back pain?: A systematic review of qualitative studies. Clin J Pain. 2014; 30(11):995-1005


3. Sitthipornvorakul E, Janwantanakul P, Lohsoonthorn V. The effect of daily walking steps on preventing neck and low back pain in sedentary workers: a 1-year prospective cohort study. Eur Spine J. 2015 Mar;24(3):417-24.


4. Adam S Sprouse-Blum, Greg Smith, Daniel Sugai, F Don Parsa. Understanding Endorphins and Their Importance in Pain Management. Hawaii Med J. 2010 Mar; 69(3): 70–71.


5. De Chiara V, Errico F, Musella A, Rossi S, Mataluni G, Sacchetti L, Siracusano A, Castelli M, Cavasinni F, Bernardi G, Usiello A, Centonze D. Voluntary exercise and sucrose consumption enhance cannabinoid CB1 receptor sensitivity in the striatum.  Neuropsychopharmacology. 2010 Jan;35(2):374-87.


6. Dubreucq S, Koehl M, Abrous DN, Marsicano G, Chaouloff F. CB1 receptor deficiency decreases wheel-running activity: consequences on emotional behaviours and hippocampal neurogenesis.Exp Neurol. 2010 Jul;224(1):106-13.


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