Time to Make a Dopamine Run

It's 6am and my alarm clock is buzzing, but I don't hear it. I don't even move. But the incessant noise wakes my wife, and her gentle nudges (read: elbows) and soft whispers (read: expletives) eventually convince me to get out of bed. It seemed like a great idea: Run in the morning before work, to free up countless evening hours. “Think of all you'll get done at night if you don't have to run after work”, I said to myself. “For once you'll actually hit your goal of blogging multiple posts per week! Maybe even finish some of those half-read books lining the shelves.” But two days into the new regime, I'm having second thoughts.

It's freaking early. I mean, I've gotten up at the crack of dawn to work on blog posts, but going out for a 6-mile run requires a bit more activation energy than typing away on the computer.

To make matters worse, I just don't feel like running today. It's cold and raining. I can hear the wind blowing from inside my apartment. My warm bed is calling to me, but I muster the will to put on my running clothes, and step outside.

I trod along, slower than usual, because my legs are still tight. A few minutes into the workout, a homeless man approaches me on a rickety bike. He rides close by, taunting me. “You keep running, boy”, he says. “Gonna run yourself right into the grave!” Living in San Francisco, I’ve grown moderately accustomed to such neighborhood friends. But today, instead of being a minor annoyance I shrug off, this guy truly sounds like the voice of reason.

We talk a lot on this blog about ways to drive healthy behavior change: Self-tracking and the Hawthorne effect. Competition and group dynamics. But no way around it, rewards are the heart of behavior change, thanks to the way our brains respond to the molecule dopamine, which differentiates what you have to do, from what you want to do. Dopamine turns a chore into a hobby.

The clearest example of the dopamine reward system in action is the now-famous experiments of Ivan Pavlov. In the early 1900’s, Pavlov noticed that when dogs saw food coming, they began to salivate. The dog's brains were moving faster than their bodies, already anticipating the sweet reward of food before a morsel even hit their mouths. So Pavlov wondered what would happen when he paired a food reward with a random stimulus, such as a bell, whistle, or electric shock. We all know how the story ends: After training, Pavlov's dogs salivated when they heard they bell, regardless if they got a food reward or not.

Pavlov's experiment unlocked our understanding of classical conditioning: Pair a random stimulus close enough to a reward, and soon the stimulus itself tells the brain to get ready for the big payout.

With brains wired for immediate reward in a world of instant gratification, it’s easy to see why we struggle when starting a new exercise routine. The stimulus (the act of running) is so far separated from the reward (the endorphin kick, the runner’s high, or even improvements in our health and fitness).

So how can we ever be expected to change a behavior unless we get an instant payout for our actions? A hand-waiving explanation would be we’ve simply trained our brains to wait longer and longer for the reward. On the other hand, consider this: If you talk to enough runners, they'll tell you they don't “feel right” when they haven’t gone for a run in a few days. They feel “off” if they don’t get their fix. I’m certainly not the first to wonder if chronic exercise somehow primes the dopamine reward system to make us crave the activity, the old “exercise addiction” theory. But the similarities between the two are striking. Could we one day use what we know about addiction to drugs to reveal new ways to get people hooked on positive behavior changes? I’m still funneling through the scientific literature regarding exercise addiction, so I’ll give you updates as the ideas surface.

For any new runners out there looking for pearls of wisdom about what to do when the going gets tough, I leave you with this: I know that even experienced runners lack motivation at times. In fact, I don't know that it ever gets easier to plunge into the first few steps of a run on days you’re dealing with bad weather, a busy schedule, or belligerent guys on bikes. But hang in there, your body and brain will thank you (hopefullly sooner than) later.