Can we utilise our brain chemistry to make working out and dieting more focused and driven?
In short, the answer is yes. Once we have some understanding of the systems that our brain uses and the chemicals involved, we can use this knowledge to manipulate and action better practise, in order to get the most out of the things we want to do - long term!
I have recently been listening to Huberman Lab, a podcast by Dr. Andrew Huberman that among other things, delves into the functions of dopamine in our brain and how that affects our day to day life. If you’re interested in that kind of thing, I highly recommend taking the time to listen to a few episodes as he explains the science and biology involved in a really easy to understand manner and provides simple, actionable steps you can take yourself to improve your day to day life.
Episode 39 was of particular interest to me as it covers how we can maintain our motivation, joy and drive to do things that we enjoy - specifically training in the gym. I have more recently found myself struggling to feel that drive or want to train myself and listening to the episode, related to a lot of the potentially bad habits he lists that can damage our dopamine levels or our dopamine responses to these once very enjoyable activities.
It’s a long episode so if you don’t want to listen to it, or just don’t have time - I’m going to try and summarise some of that information into this post. Hopefully giving you guys actionable steps that you can start taking today in order to help maintain good dopamine levels and get back some motivation and drive into your lives! Most of the information I’ll include in this post will come from this podcast and my interpretation of that information - anything else I will reference.
So what is dopamine?
Dopamine is a neuromodulator released in the brain that is associated with pleasure, motivation, focus, drive, cravings and time perception. It is also essential for physical movement although those pathways aren’t relevant to today’s discussion. Everyone has a natural baseline level of dopamine in their body and this can vary from person to person. Some people run at naturally higher baseline levels of dopamine and may appear more focused, more able to consistently work hard etc.
We all experience both peaks and troughs of dopamine levels. You will likely have heard the phrase ‘dopamine hit’ and this very generally relates to the release and experience of a peak in dopamine levels when we engage in activity that we really enjoy. This might be exercise, art, cooking or eating etc. It is also especially relevant to the addictive side of gambling and how the nature of gambling manipulates our dopamine peaks. Once we experience our dopamine peak, this is followed by a trough - taking us below our baseline levels and that might make you feel a little down and less motivated. This trough can last for varying lengths of time, dependent on the context and experience of the peak prior.
When we repeatedly engage in an activity that we enjoy over long periods of time, this activity - for example exercise - may lose its appeal and we start to enjoy it less. This is because we are seeking out the large dopamine peak that usually comes with it. Over time, if we repeatedly and regularly seek out and experience large dopamine peaks our ‘stock’ of dopamine becomes depleted - making it even harder to experience a peak and resulting in a low baseline. Low baseline levels of dopamine are associated with depression, lethargy and a lack of drive or focus.
Let’s then apply this to going to the gym for example, and how this might manifest in other unhelpful (as it turns out) habits. You’ve been going to the gym 4x per week for the last five weeks and are starting to lose focus. You aren’t feeling very motivated to go to the gym so you start drinking an energy drink or using preworkout before your sessions. You always listen to loud, upbeat music in your headphones. You spend your rest periods on your phone looking at Instagram. These additional conditions are sources of dopamine release that give you high peaks but eventually that will deplete your baseline levels, leaving you back where you started - struggling to feel motivated at the gym. All they ultimately do is make it even harder for you to experience a dopamine peak from the gym because you’ve added too many conditions for that to be able to take place. What are you really enjoying - the gym or all those extras?
Does that mean you should cut them out entirely and forever? No. If you’ve been using all these external factors for a long period though, you would definitely benefit from going cold turkey for a couple of weeks. Then, rather than regular and predictable use of these things - maybe just use each one once per week and try to make that use random. Easiest way to do that - flip a coin. Heads, you listen to music in your headphones, tails you just listen to whatever is on in the gym. Heads, you leave your phone on your locker, tails you take it with you. A more irregular schedule means more varied dopamine peaks and as such, less dopamine depletion over time - leaving you with a higher baseline.
The other potentially bad habit you can tie into any activity to want to continue doing and enjoy doing is giving yourself, or expecting a reward at the end of it. If every time you go to the gym, you motivate yourself by thinking I’m doing this for that delicious slice of cake, that coffee, that protein bar I get to eat at the end then you will experience less of a dopamine peak from that activity over time. Your brain focuses on the reward, rather than the time spent in the gym beforehand.
Instead, alongside this intermittent reward system, you should aim to engage a growth mindset whereby you make the effort, the struggle, the battle to finish your work (whatever form that may take) the reward. Telling yourself during the hardest part of your gym session that the hard work is enjoyable and that you’re there by choice, training because you do love it and you know you’ll benefit from it physically and mentally - that’s when you start to get the dopamine release from the work. Not just from the reward.
Positive thoughts towards an activity and the hard work involved can actually help you to enjoy that activity more and to retain your enthusiasm for it!
So here’s a little visual of things that you can vary at the gym, in order to keep your dopamine peaks variable and therefore high - in turn, helping you to stay motivated!
You don’t just experience a peak in dopamine following physical activities. You also experience a peak (and of course a trough) in dopamine while you eat. Chocolate for example peaks your dopamine levels at about 2x above baseline - but this peak is short lived, which is often what results in us wanting to eat more and more immediately after. It gives us a big, quick peak immediately followed by a trough - which our brain tells us we can fix with more chocolate. Relatable, right?
The peaks you experience are also affected by the experiences you’ve had beforehand. This is what makes hyperpalatable foods - high fat, high salt, high sugar - a problem. Let’s say for example you eat a piece of cooked, seasoned broccoli. If you like broccoli this may give you a little dopamine peak. Then immediately after, you eat some other hyperpalatable savoury food like some really cheesy, salty macaroni cheese. You get a much bigger dopamine peak from this food, resulting in a bigger trough - and when you go back to your broccoli it just doesn’t taste as nice. Why? Because your dopamine levels are already depleted - meaning you experience less pleasure from something you previously found very tasty.
So if you regularly eat these hyperpalatable foods that are high in fats, salts or sugar - you’re regularly getting really high peaks of dopamine that then crash afterwards. This results in you regularly seeking out even more of those foods to get another peak, but also depleting your baseline levels - a bit of a vicious cycle if you ask me. This is another example of when going cold turkey for even just a few days could have a really positive effect!
Of course I don’t think anyone should cut the foods that they really enjoy out of their diets permanently - it’s just worth considering when we consume these foods and how it may affect us afterwards. So stop using it as a reward for hard work and keep it irregular.
My final thoughts on it are that variation is important to keep things interesting - even without taking dopamine into consideration. But often there is joy to be found in the hard, sometimes monotonous work as well. Learning to enjoy that hard work and being able to focus during those periods will have HUGE benefits in all aspects of your life. If you can switch between real work and relaxation, you’ll get a lot more out of all of it.
If you want to learn in more detail about how dopamine changes the way we perceive the world then again, I highly recommend the Huberman Lab podcast as a resource. I really enjoyed learning and writing this article so if you have any further questions - drop me an email!
If you want to work with me in the gym please get in touch via email, through my submission form on my website or on Instagram. I'll always aim to provide an engaging environment to train in, positive vibes and of course hard work!