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This Is Your Brain On Fitness

Jan 23, 2013

If you’ve ever been a regular member at a conventional gym, you’ve noticed that this is the time of year when those people, we’ll call them The Resolutionaries come out of the woodwork. The Resolutionaries are those folks who, on or about January 2, rush to renew the membership they barely used last year, promising themselves that this year, YES, this year will be different! They come in waves of inspiration and perspiration, clichés and good intentions in their brand new sneakers and sweats purchased with that sporting goods gift certificate given to them by a concerned relative. And then, just like that, most of them are gone again.

Maybe a few will successfully make the conversion to regular exercise, but without a lot of help, most will not. Maybe you’re one of those Resolutionaries and you already feel your commitment flagging. So, what’s the secret? How do you permanently convert those New Year’s Resolutions into real and lasting change this time?

You ready for it? The big secret? Here it is: People who exercise regularly and successfully do so because they’ve made it a habit to do so. That is, they’ve made it such an entrenched and engrained part of their very brains that NOT doing so leaves a gaping psychic hole through which the winds of loneliness and despair howl without mercy. Maybe that’s a bit dramatic, but when people who exercise regularly miss their workouts, they feel cranky and out of sorts much the way a smoker feels upon running out of cigarettes, except what they’re missing is the thing that’s actually healthy for them. Because the craving for that healthy reward is now engrained in their habits, they’ll get back to their routine as soon as possible. That, my friends, is what we all want.

So how do you get rid of the bad habits and create new ones? Without going into a college level course in neuroscience, suffice to say that changing entrenched habits and behaviors is no easy proposition. This is because your brain, we’ll call it Alice, has a greedy obsession with a chemical called Dopamine. Think back to any happy memory: that time your first love bought you that box of chocolates, or maybe the time your mother made you feel better after a tough day at pre-school by getting you your first Happy Meal. That sense of euphoria created by these experiences caused by a burst of dopamine in your brain. Alice really likes dopamine. It’s her Happy Pill. Once Alice discovers a trigger for dopamine, she will try to drive you back to that trigger again and again. For athletes, that trigger is exercise, or winning a trophy. For the rest of us, it’s French fries or chocolate. Thanks, Alice.

The good news is that your brain can be literally rewired in 14 to 21 days through daily practice of the behavior you wish to make a habit, exercise. After a few days of consistently practicing your exercise routine, your brain will start producing a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which makes the brain more supple, allows you to think more clearly and releases the old habits. It also increases the effectiveness of dopamine neurotransmission, which means the more you exercise, the happier your brain will feel, which will then cause your brain to drive you to exercise regularly. It’s kind of a win-win for your body and Alice!

So how do you get started? This is where your Fitness Together trainer comes in. During your fitness assessment, your trainer will or has discussed your goals with you and customized that program for you. Your trainer will then get you on track with these key components:

  • Boost your calorie-burning furnace by strength-training. The only scientifically proven method of enhancing the number of calories your body burns at rest (RMR) is to change your body composition meaning adding more muscle mass. Muscle is more metabolically active than fat (one pound of muscle burns approximately 9 times the calories as a pound of fat) so by increasing muscle mass through intensive strength training, you can increase RMR to a small degree. Strength-building exercises also help maintain your bone density and balance, two important factors in healthy aging.
  • Daily cardio adds to your burn. Here is where you have the greatest daily control over your total burn rate. Cardio is the greatest calorie burner in the least amount of time. Combine a daily cardio expenditure of a few hundred calories with your strength training workout calorie burn and you have a one-two punch which will guarantee to fire up your metabolism.
  • Power up your protein intake. Eating a small amount of lean protein at every meal is also an effective metabolism booster. Protein takes more calories to assimilate thereby raising your TEF to a greater degree than carbs or fat.
  • Eat small, frequent meals. And don’t forget to eat small frequent meals throughout the day (another proven metabolism booster) rather than consolidating your entire food intake into just one or two large meals. Eating metabolism-raising foods in small quantities, spread throughout the day, will also provide you with a stable blood sugar level and a constant source of energy needed for metabolism. It is also important that you do not skip breakfast or drastically reduce your calorie intake as it will be interpreted by your body as potential starvation and lead to a slowdown in your metabolism.
  • Get enough Z’s. Sleep deprivation actually has been shown to harm your body’s endocrine function and capacity to metabolize carbohydrates. Translation: when you don’t get a good night’s sleep you decrease your calorie burning potential. Aim for at least 7 solid hours per night to help your metabolism run more smoothly.
  • Practice stress reduction. Stress triggers the release of cortisol, the primary stress hormone. When cortisol bathes your body’s tissue it stimulates fat storage, particularly around the middle (the more dangerous location). Cortisol also slows metabolism. Practicing healthy stress reduction techniques such as exercise, listening to music, gardening or any other relaxation technique will lower the amount of cortisol and help you maximize your metabolic rate.

Making those appointments with your trainer week after week is what will most effectively replace bad habits of avoidance and sedentary living with good habits that lead to strength, fitness and a greatly improved appearance and sense of self. Keep those appointments, follow that program and you WILL see results!


Schedule a complimentary fit evaluation so we can get to know you and your goals and build you a customized training program to reach them.