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This is Your Brain on Exercise

Posted Feb 05 2014 11:10pm

Hey, you. Shut up!

That’s me telling my brain to zip it. I’m working out. Giving it my best. Pushing the limits. My brain is trying to sabotage me.

You can’t. You shouldn’t. Don’t even try.

What’s Going on up There?

Most of us have no clue. We’ve never thought about what’s going on in our head when we exercise. Quieting doubt is good. Squashing fear is better. Visualizing victory and honing our focus is a game changer.

Shouldn’t our brain be on our side? We’re trying here. We want to be healthy. And happy. Is that so much to ask? Now we have to wage war on ourselves. Fight an internal battle. Then still work ourselves to the point of exhaustion. No wonder so many people excuse themselves from exercise .

Hold it Right There

Before you hang up your sneakers know that there’s a valid explanation for what’s happening. Better still, if you fight back, there are benefits abound.

Starting is stressful:  It’s time to exercise. You’re geared up. Let’s do this! Then you start. Your brain freaks out. No, no, no! It says.

This is just our instincts kicking in. As your heart rate begins to climb your brain thinks you’re in a battle for your life. Fight or flight. In an effort to barricade your brain from the stress, your body releases a protein – Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF). Around the same time our endorphins are turned loose. We’re fighting stress. Blocking pain. Shielding ourselves from discomfort. It’s crazy and really impressive. 

Happy and Healthy

Let’s run a quick cost-benefit analysis on this “to workout or not to workout” scenario.

Thinking about starting and actually starting are both painful. Doubt. Fear. Pessimism. Bad brain! But once we get moving our brain sees the light, swaps teams and actually wants us to be happy and healthy. It flips a switch that releases a stream of feel good chemicals. Reducing stress, blocking discomfort, pulverizing pain; those are all good things. Things that will make you more productive, self-confident, smarter, and creative. Thank you exercise! Thank you brain!

Mind Over Matter

That phrase makes sense now. It really is mind over matter. If you commit to a task, exercise or otherwise, your brain and body will follow. The start is the hardest part. Going from a standstill to sprint takes time. Think about a parked freight train. Or a semi-truck at a stoplight. Sure it takes them a minute to get going. But once there moving they’re are practically unstoppable (You know. You saw the movie. Right?) It’s called momentum friends.

If you’re having trouble getting started, try this:

  • Think about what you want to do. Plan for it. Then, execute.

  • Rework your workday to make time for exercise.

  • It doesn’t have to take all day either, be a fitness minimalist.

  • Keep it simple. That goes for your diet and your workout.

I know it seems like your brain wants you to be lazy. To eat more. To move less. That’s not the case. It will take the easy way out if you let it. Don’t let it. When you set the standard, your body and brain will follow.

I hope you will. And when you do, let me know how it goes and what I can do to help.

h/t – This article was inspired by a really great piece on Fast Company . Leo Widrich was talking about how exercise makes us happy. It’s worth a read. So is his company’s blog .

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