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dopamine and exercise  how to be motivated to workout dopamine and motivation what chemicals are released during exercise

Dopamine and exercise: how to be motivated to workout?

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Are you trying to set up a workout routine but finding it tricky to stick with it? Keeping your motivation levels up can be challenging, especially if you’re unsure what can help you. Keep reading to find out 5 science-based tips on how to be motivated to workout.  


Motivation is the driving force for an individual to act in a certain manner, usually to achieve a goal[1]. For example, the desire for money can be the reason for someone trying to do their job well at the workplace. To boost motivation, you should satisfy your psychological needs of:

  • Autonomy; feel you have a choice and can willingly endorse the behaviour you want,
  • Competence; feeling like an expert in a certain activity you do, and
  • Relatedness; feel connected and like you belong with others[2].

Motivation can come from the inside or outside[3]. The inside motivation is more commonly known as intrinsic motivation and describes you engaging in a behaviour because you find it rewarding[2,4]. In this case, the behaviour itself is its own reward. Imagine solving a word puzzle. You usually do it just because you find the challenge fun and exciting. The outside motivation or so-called extrinsic motivation represents you being motivated to perform a behaviour because you want to earn something you consider a reward or to avoid punishment[2,5]. You might enjoy doing the activity but you do it to get something in return. A classic example is studying hard to get a good grade. Extrinsic motivation can also help you do a task you find unpleasant.  

What chemicals are released during exercise?

Your reward chemical dopamine has a crucial role in motivation – in learning what things you like, and in behaving in a way to gain the things you like[6]. Dopamine is usually considered a post-workout chemical, providing you with that proud buzz after you finish exercising. However, a new study from Johns Hopkins University has found another promising link between dopamine and exercise; the reward chemical could also be responsible for workout motivation[7,8]. The study was performed on 24 participants who were diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and had fewer neurons responsible for dopamine production. They had to complete hand grip tasks on days when they took the dopamine medicine and on the days they steered clear of medication. Participants accurately assessed their squeeze strength when taking medication while overestimating the difficulty of the squeeze task on other days which resulted in squeezes being less strong. Also, when taking dopamine medication, participants were more willing to take a chance in a more high-effort squeezing task. The study shows an interesting link between dopamine and workout motivation. 

The amount of dopamine our body can produce can make or break the workout session as it seems. The production of your reward chemical depends on your body’s levels of tyrosine, the precursor to dopamine. Tyrosine is a natural isolated nutrient meaning you can orally ingest it with a protein-rich diet.

Tip 1: Add parmesan cheese, tofu, and a beef steak to your grocery list. Ensuring your diet has enough tyrosine-rich foods can help your brain increase dopamine production meaning you’ll be able to feel more motivated for a workout. It can also be taken in supplemental form such as brain feed’s 1st natural 800mg tyrosine supplement from fermented corn. New customers can get 15% off their first order when using the code ‘NEW15’ at the checkout. 

On the topic of brain and motivation, a 2021 study conducted in Japan has also linked a potent form of the nutrient choline known as Alpha GPC to better motivation[8]. You can read more about it here.


The best workout motivation comes from within

A literature review of 66 studies showed that intrinsic motivation is crucial for starting and sticking to your workout routine[9]. Motivating yourself with the thought of boosting your health and mood with exercise is, therefore, a better long-term driving force than wanting your body to look better. With that being said, unexpected external rewards like seeing the desired changes in your body still keep your intrinsic motivation high so you should celebrate those moments. It all comes down to our reward chemical. 

Tip 2: Decide how, when, where and for how long you want to work out so you can feel autonomous while doing it. Stick to exercises and either book a private trainer for a session or just watch tutorials on how to do the exercises properly to feel competent. Work out with a gym buddy or sign up for classes to feel the relatedness to others.   


Pay up to keep your motivation

For most people, avoiding exercise likely happens because it’s difficult to translate the initial motivation to exercise into a sustainable change in behaviour[10]. In other words, for people to stick with exercising, they need to be able to practise it for so long that it becomes a habit. According to a 2021 study on 192 healthy participants, it can take about 59 days until a new habit becomes automatic[11]. Dopamine helps with the process as it’s rewarding you every time you practice a behaviour[6]. However, people sometimes need something more. Incentives were shown to help people continuously work out and the financial incentives were shown to be very effective[10,12]. That is an example of how extrinsic motivation can work in your favour.

Tip 3: Up the ante by signing a contract agreeing to pay a friend £10 every time you skip a workout. You can also sign up and pay for gym classes. To keep your wallet full you’ll think twice before skipping a workout. 


Goals and obstacles: the path to commitment 

Fans of positive thinking have long encouraged visualising the benefits of a behaviour as a motivational strategy. For example, when you’re deciding whether to get out of bed a bit early to go running in the morning, it helps to imagine how the sun will feel on your face. Or how delighted you’ll be when you see new muscles developing.

A study on 45 female students who claimed they wanted to eat fewer junk food snacks found that those who identified the trigger that made healthful snacking difficult for them and came up with a plan to reach for fruit when cravings hit were most successful at sticking to their goal[13]. Another research on 116 students also showed that visualising your goal, identifying the triggers that stop your wanted behaviour and forming a battle plan against them helps you utilise the necessary energy to make your dreams come true[13]. 

Tip 4: Identify your workout wish and visualise the outcome. Now identify what’s holding you back — what are the triggers that make continuous exercising difficult for you? Lastly, come up with a plan to still work out when laziness and procrastination hit. 

Have fun to keep your routine up and running 

Having fun with your workout is important if you are trying to stay motivated to keep doing the desired exercises. In 2020 researchers studied the level of physical activity enjoyment and persistence of workouts in 575 participants[14]. The results showed that those who found exercise more enjoyable were more motivated and were still exercising after half a year. This again has to do with dopamine and motivation; the more you like what you’re doing, the more your brain is going to be rewarding you when you’ve done it.

Tip 5: Explore a variety of activities, workouts, and even exercises to cultivate your preferences. Pair your workouts with different music styles, and find out what makes your workout feel like a party.


Sticking to your workout routine will be much easier with these 5 science-based steps you can implement to stay fit. Already feeling more motivated? Pick one of those tips right now and get to work.

References

[1] Cherry, K. (2023). Motivation: The Driving Force Behind Our Actions. verywellmind. https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-motivation-2795378

[2] Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2008). Self-determination theory: A macrotheory of human motivation, development, and health. Canadian Psychology / Psychologie Canadienne, 49(3), 182–185.

[3] Cherry, K. (2022). Extrinsic vs. Intrinsic Motivation: What's the Difference?. verywellmind. https://www.verywellmind.com/differences-between-extrinsic-and-intrinsic-motivation-2795384#citation-1

[4] Lee, W., Reeve, J., Xue, Y., & Xiong, J. (2012). Neural differences between intrinsic reasons for doing versus extrinsic reasons for doing: An fMRI study. Neuroscience Research, 73(1), 68–72.

[5] Tranquillo, J., & Stecker, M. (2016). Using intrinsic and extrinsic motivation in continuing professional education. Surgical Neurology International, 7(8), 197. 

[6] Wise, R. A., & Jordan, C. J. (2021). Dopamine, behavior, and addiction. Journal of Biomedical Science, 28(1), 83. 

[7] Padmanabhan, P., Casamento-Moran, A., Kim, A., Gonzalez, A. J., Pantelyat, A., Roemmich, R. T., & Chib, V. S. (2023). Dopamine facilitates the translation of physical exertion into assessments of effort. Nature Partner Journals Parkinson’s Disease, 9(1), Article 1. 

[8] Jongkees, B. J., Hommel, B., Kühn, S., & Colzato, L. S. (2015). Effect of tyrosine supplementation on clinical and healthy populations under stress or cognitive demands—A review. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 70, 50–57.

[9] Tamura, Y., Takata, K., Matsubara, K., & Kataoka, Y. (2021). Alpha-Glycerylphosphorylcholine Increases Motivation in Healthy Volunteers: A Single-Blind, Randomized, Placebo-Controlled Human Study. Nutrients, 13(6), 2091.

[10] Teixeira, P. J., Carraça, E. V., Markland, D., Silva, M. N., & Ryan, R. M. (2012). Exercise, physical activity, and self-determination theory: A systematic review. The International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 9, 78.  

[11] Goldhaber-Fiebert, J., & Garber, A. (2011). The behavioural economics of exercise habits. Centre for Economic Policy Research. https://cepr.org/voxeu/columns/behavioural-economics-exercise-habits

[12] Keller, J., Kwasnicka, D., Klaiber, P., Sichert, L., Lally, P., & Fleig, L. (2021). Habit formation following routine-based versus time-based cue planning: A randomized controlled trial. British Journal of Health Psychology, 26(3), 807–824.

[13]Charness, G., & Gneezy, U. (2009). Incentives to Exercise. Econometrica, 77(3), 909–931. 

[14] Oettingen, G., Mayer, D., Timur Sevincer, A., Stephens, E. J., Pak, H., & Hagenah, M. (2009). Mental Contrasting and Goal Commitment: The Mediating Role of Energization. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35(5), 608–622. 

[15] Rodrigues, F., Teixeira, D. S., Neiva, H. P., Cid, L., & Monteiro, D. (2020). The bright and dark sides of motivation as predictors of enjoyment, intention, and exercise persistence. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 30(4), 787–800.

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