Why does exercise make us feel so good?

This is your brain on the couch

brain_sitting


This is your brain on exercise

brain_walking

ANY QUESTIONS?


Depending on your age,  you may or may not be familiar with the above reference. Throughout the 90’s there was a popular public service spot that showed a person holding up an egg and saying, “this is your brain.” They would then crack the egg into a hot frying pan and say, “this is your brain on drugs. Any questions?” It was a simple but powerful spot that effectively demonstrated that doing drugs causes harm to the brain. Since that time technology has advanced to a point where functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) has allowed us to capture actual images of how the brain responds to various activities. Using this technology scientists have been able to generate pictures like those above and  uncover the science behind something that we already know; exercise is not only good for us… it makes us feel good too. But why?

Increased Endorphin Levels:

Endorphins are chemicals that our bodies produce in response to various stimuli such as: pain, excitement, love, sex, and (you guessed it) EXERCISE. Endorphins act as neurotransmitters connecting pathways within the brain, blocking pain receptors and creating an overall sense of well-being or happiness.  The term endorphin is actually derived from the words endogenous (created internally) and morphine (an opium-based narcotic typically used for pain relief) which provides further insight into the effects that endorphins have on the brain.

A number of studies have been done that link exercise to increased endorphin levels. One such study was performed by the Department of Health and Sport Science at the University of Richmond, VA. The study found that the endorphin levels in a test group were nearly 39% higher after exercising for 45 minutes. The invorgation and positive sensations created by these high endorphin levels is often referred to as a “runner’s high” and can last for a couple of hours after completion of the exercise.

exercise bike

Increased  Dopamine Levels:

Also contributing to this extended “high” is dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter (chemical substances that transfer signals to neurons) that is at the heart of our brain’s reward center. When our body experiences a reward (something  it perceives as good) the neurons release dopamine which then binds with the dopamine receptors on neighboring neurons; quickly spreading the message that whatever we are doing right now is good and we should keep doing it. Typically once the message has been passed, the dopamine is reabsorbed and recycled for future use. Many addictive drugs like cocaine, heroine, and caffeine effect dopamine levels by blocking the removal of dopamine from the communication process. This leaves the neurons overloaded with dopamine and the users feeling a heightened state of pleasure long after the activity is completed and craving more when the dopamine is finally removed.

Dopamine Pathways. In the brain, dopamine play...

Dopamine Pathways. In the brain, dopamine plays an important role in the regulation of reward and movement. As part of the reward pathway, dopamine is manufactured in nerve cell bodies located within the ventral tegmental area (VTA) and is released in the nucleus accumbens and the prefrontal cortex. Its motor functions are linked to a separate pathway, with cell bodies in the substantia nigra that manufacture and release dopamine into the striatum. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A number of studies have shown a positive correlation between exercise and dopamine production. When we exercise the rewards center of our brain is activated and our neurons release a large amount of dopamine. These high levels of dopamine take longer to reabsorb and remain in the synapses longer. This creates a natural effect that is similar to the one created by drugs, where the individual experiences pleasure for an extended period after the activity has been completed.

There are a number of other factors that contribute to our overall  sense of feeling good after exercise, but endorphins and dopamine are two of the primary contributors. Exercising daily ensures that we are at our best: physically, mentally, and emotionally.

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Start your day with a Carpe Diem Attitude

Woman Turning Off Alarm

Have you ever woke up and immediately started to dread the day at hand? One of those days where your schedule seems to be overflowing with meetings, deadlines, quotas, the kids’ after school activities, and a whole host of other responsibilities. You almost wish you could bury your head under the sheets and make it STOP! It turns out that this type of negative approach to the day may be contributing to a self-fulfilling prophecy of misery for your day. Research has shown that our mental attitude has a profound effect on the way that we interpret various events.

Perception is everything

In her article, “7 Keys To Having A Positive Mental Attitude” Nancy Friedman highlights the power of a positive mental attitude (PMA) through the telling of a funny story about a brother and a sister. The story goes that a brother had finally had enough of his sister’s constant, overly positive attitude so he derived a plan to bring out the worst in her one Christmas morning. He wrapped up some horse manure in a box and placed it under the tree; knowing that there was no way that anyone could be positive about receiving such a crappy gift (pun intended). He watched with eager anticipation as his sister grabbed the box and gave it a shake in an attempt to determine its contents. She unwrapped it and finally the moment of truth was at hand; his sister’s positive attitude was about to come crashing down and he couldn’t wait. However to his dismay, his evil plot failed as he watched his sister excitedly yell, “Where’s the pony?!”

Girl at Christmas Time

While this story may be a little extreme, the lesson is unmistakable. Our mental attitude has a major impact on the way that we interpret the world around us. If we can start the day with a positive mental attitude, no matter how overwhelming our schedules may be, it will be more productive, less stressful, and more enjoyable than if we go into it with a sense of trepidation and filled with negativity.

5 Ways you can boost your PMA and ‘seize the day!’

1. Create a morning exercise routine.
Get your body moving first thing in the morning. Exercise gets your blood flowing and releases dopamine and endorphins that help boost your PMA.
2. Spend at least 10 minutes reading something positive.
Don’t read the news (it’s usually depressing). Instead read something positive and motivational. This could be motivational quotes, a motivational or self-improvement book; anything that helps boost your attitude. NOTE: Social Media (Facebook,Twitter, Etc…) does not qualify as motivational content. I know there are motivational pages -like CANI’s- but your newsfeed can be a harmful distraction so avoid social media and stick with books and blogs.
3. Meditate.
Don’t know how? Learn! There are many methods that you can research(Transcendental Meditation, Buddhist, etc). Find one that you are comfortable with and practice it. Most methods have you focus on breathing or a mantra to help put the mind into a trance-like state, allowing it to reset. There are a number of studies that show the positive effects that meditation has and how it contributes to a PMA.
4. Take inventory of the positives in your life.
Rather than thinking about all of the things you must do today, begin by being grateful for the things that you have: health, a home, food, your job, etc… Beginning your day with an attitude of gratitude will contribute greatly to your PMA.
5. Create a top 5 “to do” list the night before.
Eliminate the need to overwhelm yourself in the morning by starting your day with a ready-made list of the first 5 things you will do today. Focus on getting through that list before you worry about any of the other things you must do. Allowing yourself to feel a sense of accomplishment will help you approach the remainder of your tasks with the right attitude.
challenge2

Try to incorporate some or all of these items into your routine and begin your day energized and positive.

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References:
Friedman, N. (2005). 7 Keys To Having A Positive Mental Attitude. Business Credit, 106(7), 78.

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Responsible Snacking: A quick tip to help you avoid overindulging on your favorite treats

eating chocolate

Do you find that  you approach snacking with the best of intentions, committed to eating “just one,” “a little bit,” or “only a taste” only to realize -a few short minutes later- that you have consumed your daily caloric intake in the form of M&M’s (they get me every time)?

This short video explains why that happens and how sugar affects our brain:

So should we stop snacking?

Of course not! Snacking is important. It helps keep our metabolism boosted between meals and can reduce our urge to binge eat, actually reducing our overall caloric intake. While we should try to enjoy healthy snacks as much as possible…we still have to reward ourselves with the good stuff every once in a while.

How do we prevent over snacking?

The solution to this problem requires a little preparation and some self-control.

First you will need the following:

Now purchase your favorite snacks: M&M’s, Doritos, Chips, candy bars, etc… these often come in large multiple serving packages (a major contributing factor to the over snacking problem).

Sit down with your scale and snack bags and divide up the snack into managed portion sizes (I like to make my own 100 calorie packs).

IMPORTANT: DO NOT DO THIS WHEN YOU ARE HUNGRY. 

Example:

If we use Dark Chocolate Peanut M&M’s (my favorite):

The nutritional information tells us that:

Each serving is .25 cup (about 43 grams) and 210 Calories.

Using our scale we find that each M&M weighs about 2 grams meaning that there are approximately 21 M&M’s per serving (43 grams in a serving/2 grams per M&M).

To make our 100 calorie pack we need to figure out the how many calories are in each M&M:

210 Calories / 21 M&M’s = 10 Calories per M&M (WHAT?! But they’re so small)

Now add the appropriate number of M&M’s to our baggie:

100 Calories/10 Calories per M&M = 10 M&M’s (THAT’S IT?!)

The large 19.2 oz bag should yield about 27 individual 100-calorie packs.

Note: Typically the more unhealthy the snack, the smaller your 100 calorie packs will be.

How does this strategy help?

First this helps you to become conscious of the relationship between portion size and calories of your favorite ‘junk’ foods. This means that even if you’re in a situation where you come into contact with these foods and you don’t have the benefit of portion controlled sizes; you will still have an idea of how many calories you are taking in.

It also creates another barrier to binge eating by making you mindful of exactly what you are putting into your body. Every time you open another bag you know that it represents 100 calories.

Woman Eating Strawberry

Finally you should be a little discouraged by the small portion sizes that these foods produce. Hopefully this encourages you to search for new more plentiful and filling healthy alternatives.

Let this mantra serve as your guide when snacking:  Become aware, prepare, and always…snack responsibly.

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What are the 3 most common CrossFit Injuries?

Français : Tractions

Français : Tractions (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By now you’ve probably heard of CrossFit which seems to be one of the latest fitness crazes that is sweeping the nation. ESPN recently aired the CrossFit Games further escalating the workout’s popularity and causing more and more people to be looking for a good WOD.

So what is it?

CrossFit is a strength and conditioning program that was founded in 2000 by Ramy Assad. According to the company’s website, the program consists of “constantly varied functional movements executed at high intensity across broad modal and time domains … with the stated goal of improving fitness.” The circuit-style program combines body-weight exercises (push-ups, box jumps, pull ups, etc…), distance movements (rowing, sprints), and movement with weights (deadlift, kettlebell swing, squats, etc…) into what’s known as the “WOD” (Workout of the Day).

What are the 3 most common injuries associated with this style of workout?

I recently asked strength and conditioning expert Bob Bateson, BS, CSCS, RSCC, *E  this question and here is his answer. “Typically we see injuries in the knee area,  lower back, and shoulders.” According to Bob, these injuries are the result of improper movements when performing the various exercises involved in crossfit. “Failing to get your body into the proper position during an exercise places excess strain on the joints, ligaments, and tendons  and causes the rest of the body to compensate,” says Bateson. “This creates a type of chain reaction within the body and often leads to  injuries.” What’s worse, says Bateson, is that “if the form and movement is not properly corrected, the improper movement gets embedded in the muscle memory and becomes more difficult to correct down the road.”

So how do we prevent CrossFit injuries?

Bob reminds us that the people we see doing CrossFit on ESPN are professional athletes who typically have an extensive background and foundation in strength training and Olympic-style weightlifting. “Many of the injuries mentioned above occur when beginner or intermediate athletes attempt advanced routines without that solid foundation. When individuals at this level train, it’s important that they go through each exercise in the routine slowly at first; paying attention to each movement and ensuring that the body is in the proper position,” says Bateson. According to Bob, many trainers and athletes become so focused on getting through the prescribed number of reps/sets that form becomes almost secondary or an afterthought. Bob says that he prefers to work with his clients in small groups which enables him to pay attention to each individual and correct their form regularly. He told us that, “as the muscles fatigue, form begins to deteriorate and that is why it is so important to take the time to ensure that the form and movement are perfect in the beginning.” He ended by saying that the best way to avoid injuries is to work with a trainer or an educated spotter whenever possible. This person should be able to spot improper form and movements and should help you correct them immediately.

The bottom line.

Like most things in life, CrossFit requires a solid foundation based on the fundamentals. Once these have been established and reinforced through repetition and practice, participants should be able to enjoy the benefits of this high intensity workout with a limited risk of injury.

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