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Health & Wellness

How Physical Activity Increases Dopamine

June 5, 2023

Exercise has a dynamic impact on overall health, increasing heart, muscle, and bone strength, maintaining blood sugar and insulin levels, and lowering the chance of dealing with conditions like cancer, heart disease and diabetes. It accomplishes all this by sending your entire body into high gear and challenging it to work harder.

Physical activity puts key systems in the body through their paces to get results. Fitness kickstarts various processes in the body, including obvious ones like the cardiovascular, pulmonary, and musculoskeletal systems. The heart rate rises as adrenaline rushes through the bloodstream, the respiration rate increases to take in up to 15 times more oxygen than usual, and the muscles contract to take on the stress of a demanding workout.

Exercise affects more than just the heart, lungs, and muscles. Every time you step onto the treadmill, take on an intense strength training routine or perform a rigorous HIIT circuit, there are also significant changes inside the brain. 

The neurons in your brain, or nervous system, are responsible for everything from your thoughts to your ability to choose and perform a specific workout routine, and release a variety of neurotransmitters in response to exercise that impact your mental and physical state. 

These neurotransmitters include GABA, serotonin, and dopamine. Here’s a deeper dive into the wonders of dopamine specifically, including what you need to know about how it can affect your fitness routine

What is Dopamine?

You may have heard of dopamine referred to as the “feel good” hormone, or learned that it’s part of the brain’s reward center. The truth about its function is slightly more complicated than this. 

Dopamine is part of more than just pleasure and reward, including complex processes like motivation, cognition, focus and attention, learning and memory, mood, sleep, and movement. 

Dopamine doesn’t just act as a neurotransmitter helping send messages back and forth between neurons and other areas of the body — it can also function as a hormone. In this capacity, dopamine travels through the blood and contributes to the body’s fight-or-flight response, which occurs when a flood of hormones are released into the bloodstream to prime the body to take action in response to threats like psychological stress, danger, and fear by either facing or fleeing the threat. 

What Happens When You Don’t Get Enough Dopamine

The body needs optimal levels of vital neurotransmitters to function correctly, and dopamine is one of these chemicals. When there isn’t enough dopamine in your brain, you may experience noticeable effects, like changes in your general mindset or your ability to get motivated and act on your goals in the office, at home, and the gym

Dopamine is released through several different pathways in the brain, each tied to its different functions. The most commonly referenced example of how dopamine release can impact mental status is in the case of pleasure and rewards, which occurs in a part of the brain called the mesolimbic pathway. This pathway involves two main parts of the brain, the ventral tegmental area (VTA) and the nucleus accumbens (NAc).

The VTA is an area with a rich dopamine concentration and serves as the kickoff point for reward-related signals from the nervous system to other areas of the body. These signals occur in response to stimuli or behaviors considered particularly enjoyable or rewarding, such as treating yourself to a decadent dessert or making a long-awaited purchase. 

Signals from the VTA are passed along to the NAc, where they are interpreted as pleasant feelings that associate behaviors with pleasure, feeding into future motivation to repeat the behavior and continue to experience the emotions. 

Low dopamine levels in the body disrupt the function of the different dopamine pathways, including the mesolimbic pathway. This can make it difficult for typically pleasurable behaviors to incite positive feelings, which can, in turn, diminish feelings of motivation and the desire to repeat the behaviors. 

Research has found that low dopamine levels can result in symptoms consistent with depression and apathy, reducing the desire to complete regular activities and decreasing interest in reward-related behaviors. 

Because dopamine is involved in so many different processes in the body, dopamine deficiency can greatly impact how you feel. Low dopamine levels can manifest as difficulty falling or staying asleep, trouble focusing, inability to think clearly, and unusual fatigue. 

It can also cause significant anxiety, forgetfulness, and mood swings, as well as depression and hopelessness. Other physical symptoms linked to dopamine deficiency include chronic constipation, back pain, changes in weight, and trouble swallowing.  

Low dopamine levels can significantly alter the way you function in everyday life. With decreased motivation and heightened fatigue, skipping workouts and exhibiting reduced performance becomes easier if you decide to exercise at all. 

Feelings of defeat and apathy can also contribute to a reduced desire to maintain key parts of your healthy lifestyle, like trying out a challenging new workout, increasing the intensity of your existing fitness routine or keeping up with other positive habits like eating a balanced diet, limiting your stress level, and staying connected with others. 

How Exercise Impacts Dopamine

Fortunately, maintaining optimal dopamine levels can be achieved with simple adjustments to your weekly routine, like trading out saturated fats for higher protein content in your diet, getting plenty of sleep, and committing to stress-relief activities like meditation, yoga, and listening to music. 

While these strategies can be helpful, one of the best ways to increase dopamine levels is to maintain a regular fitness program. Exercise impacts dopamine in the following ways:

Boosts Mood

It has long been known that physical activity is linked to elevated mood and improved mental health. Research examining the connection between exercise and improved mood has shown this joyful phenomenon may be caused by the surge in neurotransmitters, including serotonin and dopamine, following physical activity. 

By linking workouts to feelings of pleasure and reward, exercise-related dopamine release increases positive feelings and motivates you to continue exercising. 

Releases Endorphins 

Endorphin release is one of the most commonly cited benefits of exercise. Endorphins and dopamine interact in a way that positively impacts mood and overall health. 

Endorphins encourage dopamine release and heighten the efficacy of the brain’s reward pathway, increasing our ability to feel pleasure from other activities, for instance, spending time with friends and family members. 

Helps Manage and Reduce Stress

Dopamine is involved in emotional cognition, so exercise-related dopamine release can positively impact your ability to regulate your emotions and take on new experiences. 

Physical activity can help keep the body in homeostasis and reduce the time it spends in fight-or-flight mode, allowing you to feel less psychological stress and more positive emotions like self-confidence and bravery. 

Reduces Negative Feelings

Exercise-related increases in dopamine levels aren’t just capable of increasing the experience of positive feelings — they can also mitigate the experience of negative ones. Research has linked dopamine release due to physical activity to decreased feelings of anxiety and depression.

Track Your Workouts with WHOOP

The best way to experience all of the benefits of exercise-related dopamine release is to optimize your fitness routine. Monitoring your workouts with WHOOP, and adjusting the intensity of your fitness efforts to continue challenging yourself will help you enjoy many health benefits including higher levels of dopamine. 

Whether you perform cardio or strength training workouts, or a combination of the two, WHOOP can help quantify the impact of your time in the gym on your body and offer actionable insights on improving your fitness. 

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