Willpower and Dopamine: Take Charge of Your Brain


27 Apr
27Apr

In previous blogs, I have touched on the fact that you can’t out-train a bad diet.  I haven’t mentioned the obvious yet, which is that you can’t build muscle or cardiovascular endurance simply by eating the right foods.  (You can burn fat with simple dietary changes, but it takes a lot longer if you don’t jumpstart your metabolism with physical activity.) Since it is no secret that diet and training both play an integral role in reaching your physiological and body composition goals, why is it that only 8% of people actually accomplish these goals?

The answer is simple: willpower.  According to a 2010 survey conducted by the American Psychological Association, the lack of willpower is the number-one obstacle people face in achieving their goals.  Additionally, statistics indicate that less than 25% of people actually stay committed to their New Year’s dietary resolutions after just 30 days.  I have always been shocked by the number of people who think changing their body composition should require anything short of changing their lifestyle.  We have a few Troopers who are involved in competitive bodybuilding, and I would bet they would tell you that the amount of focus they have preparing for a competition is some of the most demanding weeks and months of their lives.

The outer game is the physical stuff – how to train, eat, rest, and so on – and this is without doubt a requirement for progress.  The inner game is, of course, the mental side of getting and staying fit.  Building a killer physique is not a matter of jumping on the bandwagon of some new fad workout program for a few months.  The two biggest inner game barriers are simple: a lack of motivation and a lack of discipline.  This is why documenting progress is so important.  If you document your progress, the shot of dopamine you get will drive you a little farther in the upcoming weeks. (This is one of the essential functions of dopamine. This feel-good chemical is designed to motivate you to be more productive.) 

Just this past week, I achieved new personal records (PR’s) on my Power Clean and Power Snatch.  Both of these accomplishments reminded me that I need to continue to work on the efficiency of my Olympic Lifts.  As I continue to get stronger, my motivation to put in more work and repetitions to perfect my efficiency has increased astronomically.  I don’t have these maxes memorized for all of these lifts, so when I document my workouts, the SugarWOD app congratulates me on the gains to let me know I made a major accomplishment.

Whether your willpower challenge is associated with diet or making it into the gym, the challenges are real and indiscriminate.  Everyone, including those people with physiques that make the covers of leading fitness magazines, has to deal with willpower challenges.  The problem is that the very chemical I mentioned above, dopamine, works both for you and against you.  Dopamine will drive you to achieve more, but it is also released when you eat your favorite foods, particularly the ones loaded with fat and sugar.  This cause of a dopamine release will drive you to crave these foods even more, whether you are hungry or not.

So, how do you manipulate your mind to not give in to temptation when your willpower is lacking?  The best answers I have found for this are to simply be aware of what causes temptation and to find healthy ways to drive your dopamine production.  When armed with this knowledge, you can avoid the unhealthy ways that feed your dopamine addiction, and then motivate yourself with the healthy methods that fulfill dopamine’s natural purpose.  Essentially, you are manipulating your brain’s natural tendency to be addicted to dopamine.  If this chemical is going to be most highly-addictive chemical released in your body, you might as well use it to motivate you to do healthy things as opposed to unhealthy things.

Maybe the better question is: What is feeding your dopamine addiction?  We all crave it, but how we achieve the production of the chemical is subjective to the lifestyle choices you make.  The more aware you become of your own vices, the better the odds that you will accomplish your goals.  The good news is, you are the master of what goes into your body, and you also get to control how much you put into your training.  It’s all a choice, and you are the authority.

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