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June 10, 2019 5 min read

We can all think of at least one person who always has time to exercise no matter where they are or how busy they get. Some of us are that person, and some of us would rather hit the hotel pool and bar than the hotel gym. Turns out there is some science behind individuals varying desires to exercise.

Science Daily published an article in 2017 titled “Humans are hard-wired to follow the path of least resistance.” In their summary they claim “the amount of effort required to do something influences what we think we see, suggesting we're biased towards perceiving anything challenging to be less appealing…Our brain tricks us into believing the low-hanging fruit really is the ripest," says Dr Nobuhiro Hagura,"we found that not only does the cost to act influence people's behaviour, but it even changes what we think we see." This explains a lot, right? Millions of ‘effort saving’ products are invented, improved, and produced every year. From remote controls to garage door openers and an endless supply of articles dedicated to multitasking.

Our brains make over 35,000 conscious decisions in a day and countless more unconscious ones.  As we increase responsibility in certain areas of our lives by making more conscious decisions, we can regain control and rewire how our brains respond to certain activities. We can begin to do this in three different ways:


1. Turn the Threat or Risk into a Reward

In regards to exercise, effort is often the simple, perceived threat that subconsciously stops people. Unless there is a reward associated with the activity, the mind generally works to reduce threats and minimize effort. Our brain is actually programmed to classify different activities as threats or rewards, and these activities will stay categorized that way unless we work to change it. Short-term rewards are a good way to turn a threatening activity into a rewarding one. These rewards have to be more specific than, “I want to live longer” or “I want to be in better health” though. Short-term rewards would be wanting to sleep better that night, getting a ‘runner’s high’, or rewarding yourself by listening to your favorite pod-cast, music, or comedy show during your workout. For some, the pure fact that exercise can help stimulate a new idea or breakthrough is motivation enough too. This could become increasingly beneficial to your work and health if your job requires any amount of creativity. 


2. Understand and Develop a Healthy Addiction

Studies have proven for years that exercise is undeniably linked to brain and body health. The point here is not necessarily the exercise itself, but the biochemistry that occurs in our brain when we do exercise. This means you can take the dog for a walk, engage in strength training, or take a yoga class and it’ll provide the same brain benefits. The human body is made up of 37.2 trillion cells called neurons and the brain holds about 100 billion of these. Neurons communicate with each other using neurotransmitters, and these neurotransmitters control human emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. Endorphins and serotonin are the two main neurotransmitters that play a role in why exercise makes us feel great. They also contribute to the ‘runner’s high’ that we mentioned earlier. ‘“A“runner’s high” refers to the feeling of pure elation, reduced stress, and a decreased ability to feel pain due to a flood of endorphins released by exercise.”

“Serotonin is used to transmit messages between nerve cells, it is thought to be active in constricting smooth muscles, and it contributes to wellbeing and happiness, among other things. As the precursor for melatonin, it helps regulate the body's sleep-wake cycles and the internal clock.”


Endorphins are chemicals produced naturally by the nervous system to cope with pain or stress. They are often called "feel-good" chemicals because they can act as a pain reliever and happiness booster. Endorphins are primarily made in the hypothalamus and pituitary glands, though they may come from other parts of the body as well. The well-known "runner's high" that is felt after lengthy, vigorous exercise is due to an increase in endorphin levels.”


In addition to the production of serotonin and endorphins, exercise stimulates the production of Brain Derived Neurotropic Factor (BNDF). This protein assists in the survival of neurons by stimulating growth and maintenance of cells as well as ensuring the correct messages are being relayed between neurons. The death of a neuron could lead to cognitive decline. BNDF:

*Has neuroprotective benefits

*Supports healthy serotonin and dopamine levels

*Supports working memory

*Supports focus and attention

*Supports overall brain health

*May improve reaction time

*Supports healthy mood

*May improve short-term memory and recall

*Can help reduce mental fatigue

Understanding that the brain’s chemistry changes during exercise is important to understand for those days when you feel like you’d rather not go. Your body will begin to naturally crave the high, which can be a great motivator.



3. Get Social

You can also try expanding your social exercise networks by joining sports teams, group workouts, or simply planning to meet a friend at the gym at a specific time. Studies have shown that social connections are innately rewarding to humans and this strategy creates a threat for our brain that most worry about more than simply not exercising, and that is looking unreliable or undependable to others. For many of us, the simple increased fear of letting down a friend or team is motivation enough to get us moving.  The greater threat also mean greater reward too. If we successfully show up for planned exercise with friends and teammates, the reward we feel may be greater than that of simply showing up for ourselves, helping us create a stronger habit. 

However you decide to find the motivation to start working out, consistency is key. “On average, it takes more than 2 months before a new behavior becomes automatic — 66 days to be exact. And how long it takes a new habit to form can vary widely depending on the behavior, the person, and the circumstance” according to Phillippa Lally, a psychology researcher at University College London published in theEuropean Journal of Social Psychology. Lally also had subjects form a habit in as little as 18 days though. So, in potentially less than two months, you can begin to train your brain to enjoy exercise through reward and begin to experience the lifelong health benefits. So what else is stopping you? 


"We think about our future selves like different people. We often idealize them, expecting our future selves to do what our present selves cannot manage." -Dr. Kelly McGonigal 







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