Written by Annie Duong
The beginning of the new year calls for many of us to make radical changes or set goals to better ourselves. One of the most common resolutions is to make exercise a daily routine. However, within a few months, the resolutions have become long forgotten. Why might it be so difficult to establish these exercise habits? A closer look at the neurological systems in our brains may help explain our behavioral tendencies.
In the brain, a group of nuclei in the cerebrum at the base of the forebrain, called the basal ganglia, is known for its role in motor control and procedural learning, including habitual movements . The basal ganglia, which is part of a group of structures called the limbic system, is especially known to have a large role in motivation and the brain’s self-rewarding system. Neurophysiologists Jerzy Konorski and Divac first examined basal ganglia’s effects on lesions on a wide variety of body movements and brain’s response to those movements. Behaviors such as pressing a button or flexing your limbs are considered instrumental, which is different from reflexive and fixed action patterns because the former are actions made in order to reach a human-made goal . These are voluntary actions that must be consciously thought about. Reflexes are more involuntary and automatic; although they can be learned, the action requires a stimulus, and the response happens automatically as the result of interneurons communicating with sensory and motor neurons.
When learning habits, activity from the ventral areas, a region where neurons are situated in the center of the brain, is shifted to the dorsal area, located in the pre-frontal cortex of the brain, which is where the decision making occurs. A key component in whether behavior is directed towards a goal is a habitual is whether there is an experienced contingency between a certain kind of behavior and its reward .
In a longitudinal study done with new gym members, researchers investigated the behavioral requirements necessary to form lasting habits. Participants were to carry out 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise five times each week and recorded the “reward” by using the SEES, or the Subjective Exercise Experience Scale, an instrument that measures exercise reward through affective judgements, including energy levels. Within 2 weeks of the study, around three quarters of the participants did not maintain a regular exercise routine. The reward scale was found to be lower during the first few weeks and increased upward. Interestingly, there was no significant change in the twelfth week of the study, where reward became stagnant. Intention seemed to have a greater role in maintaining a steady exercise routine . The researchers concluded that it took a minimum of six weeks to form a steady, consistent routine.
It seems that although brain and biological rewards of increased energy and positive attitudes helped maintain a regular exercise routine, it was not the underlying factor. The brain’s complex system of neurons and structures is significant, and intention and continual persistence also help retain this behavior. Engaging the entire body in total movement is much more difficult than instilling small habits throughout the day, and thus, requires more work than reliance on our body’s natural reward system.