Not Motivated to Run Today? Blame Your Habenula

motivation to run and Habenula

We all have those days. Five miles on the training schedule, but absolutely no motivation to lace up and get out there. Maybe you have had a difficult day; maybe you are tired from a hard workout from this weekend. Or maybe, your brain isn’t functioning like it should.


Researchers with the Seattle Children’s Research Institute have discovered a particular part of the brain responsible for a person’s motivation to exercise. Dr. Eric Turner and Dr. Yun-Wei (Toni) Hsu say that without a well-functioning dorsal medial habenula, we become couch potatoes.

The team used mice that were genetically engineered to block signals from this part of the brain (located in the center of the brain, near the hypothalamus. Typical mice love to run on their exercise wheels, says Dr. Horacio de la Iglesia, a professor at the University of Washington who collaborated on the research. However, the altered mice were lethargic and ran much less.

“Without a functioning dorsal medial habenula, the mice… were physically capable of running but appeared unmotivated to do it,” said Dr. Turner.

Past research has suggested that the habenula is involved in reward processing. If this part of the brain receives faulty signals, it can lead to depression and a loss of desire to do pleasurable activities, including running.

Right now, I can’t offer you a trick to get your habenula working properly. However, there are some proven strategies that may help you become motivated to exercise.


1) Write Down Your Specific Goals.
For everyone, the goal is different but must contain 3 important parts. Goals must be specific, quantifiable, and associated with a length of time. Meaning that it isn’t enough to say “I want to run.” You must say “Today, I will run for 30 minutes.” For long-term goal setting, try this: “I will be able to run a 5K on September 20.” Remember to write your long and short-term goals somewhere and read them frequently. Known as “autosuggestion,” this will help condition your brain to believe you will be successful in achieving the goal.

2) Visualization
Do you have a picture in your mind of how you want your body to look and feel? Visualizing how you will feel after your run may help you get out the door. Try to answer the following questions about your visualization:
• What are you wearing?
• What are you doing?
• Who are you with?
• How exactly do you feel? What is your emotional state?
• What is it about the way you look/feel that is so appealing? Anything in particular?

3) Track your Progress
If you don’t track your progress, you will have no idea if you are on the path towards reaching your goals. Remind yourself that progress may come slowly, but it will come. That positive change in how you look and feel will become its own motivator.

4) Build a Support Group
Maybe you just need to reach out to a friend for a reality check. Someone who will say “Suck it Up, Buttercup. Go for a Run.” Making changes to your lifestyle can be challenging, so developing a support group will help create positive energy around your efforts, which can come in handy when you need it most.

Journal Reference:
Yun-Wei A. Hsu, Eric E. Turner et al. Role of the Dorsal Medial Habenula in the Regulation of Voluntary Activity, Motor Function, Hedonic State, and Primary Reinforcement. The Journal of Neuroscience, 20 August 2014, 34(34): 11366-11384; doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1861-14.2014

Additional Resource:
Marc Perry CSCS CPT. 7 Ways to Increase Your Motivation to Exercise