Aren’t you curious why some people love exercising and physical exertion while others would rather sit all day, eat ice-creams and watch Netflix?
Well, I am curious. And I’ve spent a lot of time looking for the answer. Those are my findings.
You know that type, always running, lifting, swimming and jumping from one crazy challenge to the another? That’s me. Keeping fit and healthy is relatively easy for me. I am lucky to be in a small group of sports fanatics who cannot live one day without breaking a sweat. Most of the other coaches, personal trainers and fitness instructors are in this group too.
On the other hand, most of our clients belong to the second, less active group. They struggle with motivation to exercise, they have a hard time losing weight, keeping it off and getting fit. They’ve seemed to try everything, but they never managed to stick to the routine.
I always wonder why!?
Many years ago, at the beginning of my coaching career, I could not understand this aversion to fitness. How can someone hate exercising? Is it even possible? It is fun, isn’t it?
So I was trying all I can to keep them motivated and engaged: mostly shouting alongside the advert “just do it! You just need to try harder!
And then, when they didn’t show up for the next session, I would blame laziness and lack of commitment.
How harsh! If it only was that simple.
Then, after speaking and listening to many clients, I’ve realised that the lack of adherence to the fitness program could not be explained only by the lack of motivation. There must be something else.
I’ve dig dipper and then I have found a fantastic book by Daniel Lieberman Exercised: The Science of Physical Activity, Rest and Health. What a revelation!
According to the author, we humans, we are born to be lazy. Yes, that’s right. We are lazy by default, programmed to use as little energy as possible to go from day to day. And for the millions of years, this minimalistic approach was working very well for us.
Life was hard back then. We had to walk miles to catch food. We had to fight with extreme weather, and regularly defend ourself from angry predators.
And, in the rare moment of quiet and pace, we would take any opportunity to relax, sit down, rewind, and save energy.
Unfortunately for us, over the years, we have tamed and upgraded our environment; now we have cars to move around, uber eats to feed us, amazon prime for shopping and zoom for meeting people but our primary operating system, the one who kept us alive for generations, is still due to the significant update.
What was working very well for millions of years is killing us today. The evolution odds are stacked against us.
But there is hope.
We still have special procedures and chemicals in place to make movement fun and enjoyable. We just need to learn how to activate them.
And it all starts with 3 chemicals.
Meet the first one, dopamine. Dopamine is a reward system which simply tells your brain to do it again. It goes up when you eat something good, when you have sex and when… drumroll… when you exercise!
But there is a catch; dopamine receptors in people who move less are less active, and body fat makes them even less receptive.
Time for the chemical number two, serotonin. This little fella helps you feel pleasure and helps control impulses.
It is being realised when you have physical contact with loved ones when you take care of infants when you spent time outdoors and…yes when you are exercising!
It’s worth mentioning that low serotonin levels lead to anxiety, depression and impulsivity…
Time for chemical number 3, endorphins. Those are natural opiates that help us tolerate the discomfort of exercise, think your personal stash of heroin, morphine or codeine. They are only produced after around 20 min of intensive, vigorous activity.
Now, when we know 3 leading players, let’s meet our study subjects, brothers; Alex and Ben.
Alex and Ben used to weight the same and run for the same cross-country school team. Then life has happened, and after a few years, they look and feel different.
Alex is still fit, Ben is not. Alex cannot wait to exercise again, he is full of energy. Ben cannot wait to lay down and rest.
Not only their bodies look different, but their reaction to the exercise is entirely opposite.
Let’s send them for a run. They both struggle for the first few minutes. Fitter Alex, who is used to exercising, breaths fully and relax as he knows that after a few more minutes he will start filling better.
He patiently waits for his first serotonin hit.
Ben, on the other hand, struggles with every step. He really does not enjoy this experience. From a handful of previous running attempts, he remembers only pain and discomfort. His serotonin system is not very efficient, and it will have no effect on him.
Poor Ben stopped after 15 min. He hasn’t received any endorphins. He felt pain and discomfort only, no help from powerful chemicals, no reward, no runners high. As he didn’t like the experience at all, he will find it very hard to motivate himself to give another go in the future.
Alex, on the other hand, loved today. He has pushed himself today. After hard 20 first minutes, the natural high has kicked in, so he went even further and faster.
A few hours later, he is still buzzing, full of dopamine and serotonin. No wonder he will go for a run again, very soon.
The pattern repeats, for days, months, years. Alex becomes very fit, and he cannot believe that Ben has given up the exercise altogether. Isn’t exercise fun? he askes, biased by his experiences.
No, its not fun, not for Ben. He got stuck in the negative feedback loop, and it will be tough for him to start enjoying exercise again. But there is hope!
Are you get stuck in the negative feedback loop too?
Get in touch, let’s chat about it. At Fitness Soul, we have helped a couple of hundred of clients to start exercise and movement again, you could be next.