Workout Motivation: The Science of the Brain's Role in Exercise

Workout Motivation: The Science of the Brain's Role in Exercise

Alongside intermittent fasting, one of the most effective habits for improving cognitive performance and wellness is exercise. Improved physical fitness is correlated with greater brain plasticity1, learning ability, and attention span2. Athletic training is an important component in supporting mental health (depression and anxiety) 3and aiding in creativity4. It is hard to optimize brain performance without exercise.

For many elite mental performers, these data provide sufficient rationale to include exercise regularly as part of their overall wellness programs. They understand that optimizing the body can lead to better outcomes for the brain. But does this relationship also work in the other direction?

In this blog series on nootropics and athletic performance, we will explore why performance training for the brain may also support improved exercise and sports performance. We start in this article to broadly explore the importance of prepping our mind as an essential pre-workout activity. We begin the exploration of the role of nootropics for athletics and workout programs.

How Do I Motivate Myself to Exercise?

Why do people exercise? Competition or to excel in a sport or type of exercise activity can be the reason for some people. Even if elite physical performance is not relevant to your professional success or personal ambitions, excelling during a workout has many other benefits. Motivators can include looking fit for mate selection, maintaining physical mobility, and other intrinsic desires. These fluctuating motivators elucidate the complex nature of our reasons for pursuing physical performance.

I’m writing this series in January, because the new year brings new resolutions. Every year, “exercising more” or “doing fat burning workouts” are at the top of the lists of resolutions.

In January of every year, gyms, other training facilities and running trails are filled with motivated participants performing some form of physical exercise. By the end of February, the number has dwindled. What happened to our motivation to stick to our workout plans?

Motivation, along with many other processes involved with physical performance, requires input from the brain. In other words, our motivation to get our bodies to the fitness center comes from our minds.

In a very real sense, it requires mental energy to stay motivated. This is the first reason that the brain affects athletic performance. When our brain is working better, we usually make better choices and have the bandwidth to carry out our good intentions. Put another way, we do the exercise we planned to do.

There are numerous sports performance metrics identified by researchers and high performing athletes alike. Several of these—reaction time, processing speed, focus—are directly related to our brain’s capacity to direct the body and its neuromuscular performance. The rest are strongly influenced by our brain. 

Two metrics we would commonly identify as primarily “physical” are influenced by our levels of mental energy. Research by Dr. Ranjana Mehta found declines in endurance and strength performance when participants were doing mentally demanding tasks at the same time as working out.5 The mental tasks created “mental fatigue,” which resulted in a 25% decrease in endurance performance and a 10 - 66% decline in strength performance. We’ll go into more detail on why this occurs in an upcoming blog post.

This is a single scientific example of how crucial an optimized brain is for performing our best physically. It is also clear evidence of the complexity of the human system. Even metrics we consider purely physical rely on cognitive inputs. For the rest of this series, keep in mind that no physical activity occurs without the brain’s involvement.

How to Get the Energy to Workout

Maintaining adequate levels of mental energy influence whether we workout and how effective we do so. Two questions or hurdles we must overcome:

  1. Do you have the mental energy to actually workout with consistency? 

  2. Can you maintain high levels of mental energy to complete the workout with intensity?

The first is relatively self-explanatory, but crucial. As I mentioned, many people join a gym or start an exercise program in January and find themselves skipping workouts by February. For people who are too mentally drained to workout, they are missing opportunities to increase their physical performance. 

One solution may be to workout earlier in the day. According to a YouGov survey, about 50% of people who exercise do so in the morning.6 This may be a preference, but it may also show a greater success rate among early exercisers. In one study on exercise in middle-aged women, a participant noted “...when I get home, I don’t feel like it anymore, cause I’m too tired”7

In my personal workout plan, I find going to the gym mid-day works best (approximately 11 AM - 12 PM). In this way, my best mental energy is reserved for challenging cognitive tasks relevant to my profession, but it doesn’t become too late in the day to feel fatigued or lazy. At this point, I actually enjoy the performance training because of how it makes me feel, so it’s a habit I generally look forward to. This isn’t the case for everyone.

With professional responsibilities, social obligations, and other mentally demanding tasks, many people simply skip workouts altogether if they wait till the end of the day to do them. Enough skipped workouts can significantly reduce physical performance and usually destroys the habit. A successful athlete develops of consistent schedule to perform their athletic training. 

For those who need help building new habits, James Clear’s book “Atomic Habits” is an excellent resource and one of Ben Greenfield’s top 28 books of 2018. To get an overview, below is a brief video from James Clear called “How to get 1% better every day.” Notice how James says there are four stages of habit formation with the last one being “liking” the habit.

But liking a habit doesn’t happen overnight and even then there are other constraints. Having enough mental energy to maintain a high level of focus and intensity throughout an entire workout is essential for getting a big return in our wellness on the time we invest in exercise. It’s a big topic and will be what we talk about in the next article of this series.

Science-Backed Ways to Get the Most From Your Workout

Optimizing mental performance will have a big impact on your physical abilities, because humans are a complex system with our brain and body in constant communication. 

The first step in getting the most from your workout program is actually doing it. Creating a habit of working out before mental fatigue becomes too strong is the priority.

The level of mental energy and fatigue you face during a workout is the subject of part 2 of this series. We will focus on mechanisms that modulate our capacity to follow through on the entirety of a planned workout and how to maintain maximum focus and intensity. 

In parts 3 and 4, we will further describe nootropic and ergogenics (supplements that improve physical performance) that influence your mental energy and cognitive capacity to perform more effectively in your athletic performances and during competition. 

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6 This is not a scientific study, but rather a survey done through YouGov, which is a for-profit company.

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