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Why It May Be Hard to Stick to an Exercise Habit

We often start out with good intentions when it comes to a regular exercise routine, but it can be hard to stick to the plan over the long-haul. Researchers might have found a reason why.


It is no secret that physical activity is essential for optimal human health. Even with all of this knowledge, why is it so hard to stay motivated and make exercise a daily habit? It might literally be “all in your head.”

Researchers publishing in the journal Cell Metabolism believe that physical inactivity may be the result of faulty dopamine receptors. Dopamine receptors are important in many neurological processes, including motivation and pleasure.

"Other studies have connected dopamine signaling defects to obesity, but most of them have looked at reward processing -- how animals feel when they eat different foods," says study senior author Alexxai V. Kravitz. "We looked at something simpler: dopamine is critical for movement, and obesity is associated with a lack of movement. Can problems with dopamine signaling alone explain the inactivity?"

In the study, mice were fed either a standard or high fat diet. Early on the mice on the “unhealthy diet” began to gain weight and soon after spent much less time moving around. Surprisingly, though, even in the absence of weight gain, the high-fat diet appeared to be associated with increasingly less activity – disputing the prevailing thought that weight alone decreased exercise.

Looking specifically at the dopamine signaling pathway, the team found deficits in the D2 dopamine receptor in the obese and inactive mice. "There are probably other factors involved as well, but the deficit in D2 is sufficient to explain the lack of activity," says Danielle Friend, first author of the study.

"In many cases, willpower is invoked as a way to modify behavior," Kravitz says. "But if we don't understand the underlying physical basis for that behavior, it's difficult to say that willpower alone can solve it."

While future research still needs to be conducted, particularly looking into whether a diet change and weight loss may help fix the dopamine signaling process, we can still start today taking steps toward creating and maintaining a daily workout plan.

Here are some great tips from Fitness Magazine:

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1. Invest in good workout gear. Choose clothes that fit you now (not “when you lose a few pounds”). “Having the right clothing doesn’t just remove a hurdle, but also reinforces your identity as an exerciser,” says Kelly McGonigal, PhD, a health psychologist and fitness instructor at Stanford.

2. Don't put away your gear. Think “out of sight, out of mind.” Keep your workout bag packed and in plain view and you will be more likely to grab it for a workout.

3. Turn your commute into a workout. Even if you live in an area not suitable for 100% alternative commuting (like running or biking), you can always park your car in a safe spot a mile or two away and walk/bike the remaining distance.

4. Log your workouts. When you can see objective evidence of your progress, you are more likely to stick to it.

5. Involve your causes. Try “Charity Miles” for motivation – and your workout will actually be benefiting a cause close to your heart.

6. Make friends with class regulars. Exercising is almost always more fun with a friend for support.

7. Create an exercise contest. Competition turns a solitary pursuit into a fun group one. But make sure everyone “wins” – because just the effort alone makes you successful.

Journal Reference:
Danielle M. Friend, Alexxai V. Kravitz et al. Basal Ganglia Dysfunction Contributes to Physical Inactivity in Obesity. Cell Metabolism, 2016; DOI: 10.1016/j.cmet.2016.12.001

Additional Resource:
“7 Habits of Highly Effective Exercisers” Fitness Magazine

Photo Credit:
By NACDublin - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons