The 5 Feels of Exercise, as told by your brain


I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with exercise. Well, more of a desire-demotivation-determination-detest-delirious relationship with exercise. Let’s face it, no fitness journey is a linear path of ‘loving it’; despite what some fitness instagrams might imply. (Yeah, they deffo have times when they binge on crisps and don’t want to get up for a 5am workout, but no filter will make that fit with their theme). Most forms of exercise involve pushing ourselves out of our comfort zones and with that comes an array of emotions from deep within your brain. Here is a back-brain pass to the 5 feels of exercise.

1. Desire

This feel is normally at maximum the day before you are planning on working out. You are ready to go get your sweat on and embrace your new lifestyle as a fitness bunny. You have never felt so motivated to exercise in your life and why shouldn’t you? Working out is like, the best thing everrrrr.

Brain Talk: When you decide to book a gym class or get up early to run, your brain sets this as a ‘goal’. Goal-directed behaviour is thought to be mediated by the frontal brain regions, such as the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) responsible for decision making (read the IOWA gambling test for more on this brain region). These areas are stimulated by neurons which release dopamine; a ‘reward’ neurotransmitter associated with feelings of pleasure. When you set a goal, dopamine is used to predict whether the action is going to pay off with a worthy reward. Dopamine signals before starting a task as a reward-learning technique; teasing your brain with a little taste of the canddyyyy you will get when you reach your goal. This small dopamine hit drives you to set your alarm at silly o’clock to get up and get a sweat on when you’d normally be in cosy bed.

2. Demotivation

Andddddd you can’t be bothered. It is an hour before you are due to put your gym gear on and the last thing you want to do is move. Sitting down and scrolling on your phone is now the most important thing you need to do. If you skip this one workout, you’ll definitely go tomorrow but right now, you aren’t really feeling it, so what is the point right?

Brain Talk: Believe it or not, choosing to stay in bed or sat on the couch is the path ‘hard-wired’ in your brain as this requires the least resistance; costing less to sit still and chill than get up and get going. The brain weighs up the cost of moving with the reward of exercising and current circumstances can massively sway the vote. If it is cold outside and you are warm in bed, your brain states ‘the cost of getting cold is not worth the benefit of exercising’ so tries to convince you to skip the gym. The neuronal mechanisms behind these feelings are still being explored, however, it has been shown that individuals who are generally more apathetic have to over-activate their pre-motor cortex (the movement planning area) before accepting an effortful challenge with a high reward. Therefore, some individuals genuinely need to have someone drag them out of bed to get them to spin in the a.m as their brain cannot muster the effort to push back the covers themselves.

3. Determination

You managed to wiggle into your lycra leggings and this releases a new wave of emotion. You can do this, you are going to do this and you are going to change your life. You are going to push yourself to your limits. The workout has begun, and you feel great. Here we go!

Brain Talk: Determination is a form of intrinsic motivation; describing a behaviour driven by internal (chemical) rather than external (cash-cash-MONEYYY) rewards. This behaviour is also thought to rely on dopamine, as It is common to our ancestral ‘seeking’ behaviour; pivotal to our brains directing us to chase down our target. One study described an increase in dopaminergic (D2) receptors in the striatum (a brain area involved in a circuit which directs voluntary movement), meaning elevated dopamine can readily activate these neurons and increase ‘neuron flow’ – preventing impulsive or distracting behaviours when completing a task. Determination also relies on focus. In the brain, focus is created by increasing neuronal activity in the attention regions (prefrontal cortex) while dampening background neuron signalling from other areas. This creates an in-tune focus to kick-butt on the task at hand.

4. Detest

The novelty has worn off. Mid workout: You are tired, in pain and someone is screaming at you to ‘keep going’. And you hate. Every. Excruciating. Second. Why did you decide to do this again? Burning a few extra calories is not worth this effort. Never again will you put yourself through this ordeal health professionals recommend as being ‘good for you.’

Brain Talk: The absolute desperation you feel mid-workout is your brain’s attempt to get you to give up. It starts telling you how tired you are, and you’ve done enough so you can stop. You brain perceives exercise as your body being under stress as evolutionarily, the only time you would be pegging it would be away from a predator. But as mentioned before, your brain is all about measuring the cost of an action vs the reward you will receive. And mid workout, the reward of ‘completing the workout’ is meagre at best. Your brain thinks you are wasting unnecessary energy running on the spot in a non-threatening, air-conditioned gym so will signal for you to hit ‘stop’ and abruptly end your session.

5. Delirium

Back in the changing rooms after many near-stop moments and you can’t help but feel AMAZING! You are done! Your heart rate has come back down to a semi-normal level and a sensation of clarity washes over your brain. You are buzzing and booking into you next class before you have even hopped in the shower. You swear to go to the gym every day from now on because this is the best feeling EVER.

Brain Talk: Following swinging your kettle bells, you brain experience increases in specific chemicals which make you feel so gooooooode. Endorphins, the brains natural ‘pain-killer’, have been shown to increase in the brain following exercise. These chemicals act on opiate receptors, the same receptors triggered by morphine and other ‘high’ drug, so you are left buzzing after your treadmill slog. Endocanniboids, the chemicals similar to that found in cannabis, are also elevated after exercise. Together, it is thought these chemicals can activate dopaminergic neurons in the ventral tegmental area, leading to stimulation of the pleasure circuit in the frontal lobe. And if your goal was to go to class and workout, you have achieved it, meaning more dopamine is released in frontal regions as a reward for meeting you target. Overall, your brain experiences a huge rush of ‘the good’ chemicals once you have finished exercising, driving motivating behaviours needed to get into an exercise routine.

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Exercising is an emotional rollercoaster for your brain, especially if you are trying to get into a new routine. The more you stick to a plan the easier it becomes as your original goal will be transformed into a habit, making it achievable to win the battle with your alarm clock. Exercise is excellent for your physical and mental health and we should all have some form for active routine to promote your brain health. Try to remember that next time you are experiencing feeling 4 during a class – it may just help you to push through!

Resources used to write this article (Click for linkz)

Mesolimbic dopamine signals the value of work

Individual Differences in Premotor Brain Systems Underlie Behavioural Apathy

Individual differences in the proneness to have flow experiences are linked to dopamine D2-receptor availability in the dorsal striatum

The Emerging Neuroscience of Intrinsic Motivation: A New Frontier in Self-Determination Research

Suppression of Salient Objects Prevents Distraction in Visual Search

What does running do to your brain?

Exercise, pleasure and the brain


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