Many people don’t like to exercise. Why? Because it’s hard of course. Let’s face it, except for those of us who have become endorphin addicts (yes, that’s a real thing), most people find exercising uncomfortable.
It’s inconvenient. We have to make time, get changed, work out, sweat, grunt and strain, and what do we get for our efforts? Tired. Exhausted. And, if we’re not watching our diet, we don’t even see much difference in the mirror or on the scale. So why do it? It’s this lack of pay off that makes many people quit, or never start in the first place. Most of us don’t mind working hard at something if there’s a reward, but why in the world would we keep doing something that’s hard if we’re not getting anything out of it?
But what if the hard work was the reward? I know, this sounds like pop psychology but stick with me for a minute, because there’s real science behind this. Dopamine is our brain’s reward chemical. For a very long time scientists believed that we got a rush of dopamine when we reached a goal, when we succeeded at something, but it turns out that’s not quite true.
Robert Sapolsky, a neuroscientist who studies dopamine, did an experiment with a group of monkeys that shows dopamine doesn’t work the way we thought. The monkeys had to wait for a signal, then, if they pushed a button 10 times after the signal, they would receive a food reward. Sapolsky measured the dopamine release in the monkey’s brains throughout this process and discovered that after a few exposures, the monkeys got a rush of dopamine when the signal appeared, even before they pushed the button and well before getting the reward. The dopamine was released in the anticipation of the reward.
Regular exercise produces the same effect. When we do something that’s hard, and we succeed at it, our brain releases dopamine. We feel proud of ourselves and it’s a feeling that lasts as long as we keep achieving. So, a commitment to regular exercise produces a lasting increase in our dopamine levels, helping us to feel more confident and better about ourselves in general. The harder we work and the more we stick to our workout schedule, the stronger the effect.
And, if we keep up the commitment, eventually the physical rewards come too. The best of both worlds.