By Dustin Detzer
Actions originating in the body directly affect the mind and brain, and vice versa. If we examine the body and mind as a single unit, a totally integrated biological machine, it becomes apparent that the machine is built for adaptation. Our evolutionary history has culminated in a machine
that is constantly adapting and changing to the environment. Let’s define environment as all inputs: the air being breathed, the food, water, nutrients and substances being ingested, sensory input, physical activity, social interaction, thoughts, feelings, and emotions. The machine is continuously adapting and changing from moment to moment, all day, all night, every day, 24/7, 365- the only constant is change. How can we control the change and steer this continuous adaptation for a desired outcome?
Philosophical and religious doctrines aside, the brain is widely considered to be responsible for piloting the machine. The brain is the primary sculptor of the mind; however, the brain and mind are so entangled that they’re best understood as a single, co-dependent, integrated system. If you change your mind, you change your brain, if you change your brain, you change your life. The mind/brain system is constructed of neurons- specialized nerve cells that make up the nervous system. The neurons are not hard-wired, or fixed; they are malleable and changeable like plastic. This attribute is known as neuroplasticity. The neurons function by releasing neurotransmitters; chemical messengers that transmit information.
Two key neurotransmitters that affect downstream behavior are dopamine and endorphins (opioids). These neurochemicals are produced naturally within your nervous system. Dopamine is involved with rewards and attention; from an evolutionary perspective, dopamine promotes
“approach behaviors.” Approach behaviors are behaviors that are likely to promote survival and/or offspring. If you are given a compliment, are praised, are the subject of positive speech, or accomplish a task, a dopamine response is triggered. Opioids reduce pain, mitigate stress, and produce pleasure. When we are in the heat of a METCON, long distance run, rowing session, or hardcore kettlebell workout an endorphin (opioid) response is triggered- also known as “runner’s high.”
One reason illegal substances such as cocaine and heroin are so addictive is due to their ability to exert psychoactive effects by altering brain chemistry; particularly, by interfering with neurotransmitters. However, reinforcement (the tendency of a pleasure producing drug to lead to repeated self-administration) is not solely caused by the nature of the chemical. Research shows that human beings acquire new patterns of behavior by close association, or pairing of one significant reinforcing stimulus with another less significant or neutral stimulus (social learning
theory). This phenomenon can be explained as “what fires together, wires together.” An example of this for me is the smell of fresh cut grass in autumn. I played football in high school and repeatedly experienced social camaraderie, rewards of positive speech, praise, and attention – which in turn triggered a dopamine response. Also, due to the intense strength and conditioning workouts, I experienced an endorphin response (opioid). The pairings of the neurochemical responses triggered by the workouts and the social stimuli reinforced the behavior and also associated certain cues with the positive feelings brought on by the neurochemicals. These natural neurochemical experiences were often paired with the smell of fresh cut grass. Now, when I smell fresh cut grass, I have a semi-euphoric, warm, happy feeling- what fires together wires together. Once you understand this mechanism, you can manipulate it to enhance your life. You can wire yourself to enjoy activities that you know are good for you and will have a positive outcome- such as exercising consistently and/or eating healthy.
The execution is simple; however, consistency is absolutely essential and requires mindful self discipline. Immediately after exercise or during, notice how you feel, focus on the positive- how good it feels to sweat, how good it feels to move, how good it feels to utilize your body, search
for the runner’s high, notice it, take it in, bask in it, and smile. Pair this with positive self talk, for example, “Good job! You’re doing it! Keep going!” This may sound goofy or feel mechanical or awkward; however, it works like a charm. You will be reinforcing the neural pathway, associating the behavior (exercise) with the feel-good chemicals being released (dopamine and
endorphins) rewiring yourself to like it and eventually yearn for it. With this technique you can hack your neurochemistry to install any desirable habit. On the flip side, if you miss a workout or have a disastrous meal, don’t beat yourself up. Don’t allow the negative self talk to creep in,
simply move on and proceed down the path to improved health and happiness.
Double up on the reinforcement and surround yourself with a peer group that is striving for the same goals- a group that values exercise and nutrition as much as you do, or as much as you wish to. An excellent way to achieve this is group exercise classes- particularly the CrossFit model that encourages a culture of enthusiasm and support for all participants. Even if you can’t make a class time, working out in the open gym just in the presence of others in such an environment will affect your neurochemistry in a positive way. Don’t take my word for it, experiment with these techniques and get yourself hooked on healthy living. If you want to learn more about shaping your habits to support a happy and healthy life don’t hesitate to hit me up! Please feel free to text, call, IG- or we can have a good old fashioned face to face conversation- I can usually be found swinging kettlebells in the back of the gym!
May the gains be with you!
“Buddha’s Brain, the Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom” by Rick Hanson, PH.D. and Richard Mendius, MD.
“Essential Psychopharmacology, Neuroscientific Basis and Practical Applications” by Stephen M. Stahl.
“Drugs and Society” by Glen R. Hanson, Peter J. Venturelli, and Annette E. Fleckenstein.
Dustin Detzer is a certified personal trainer, certified kettlebell specialist, yogi, and former Marine. He has experience training athletes of all ages and abilities. Dustin is passionate about empowering individuals to make sustainable positive changes that lead to a healthy and happy life; a life everyone deserves.