Everyone, even children, knows the benefits of playing sports and exercising . And yet, the majority of humanity continues undeterred to choose sedentariness. In Italy, only 22% of the population regularly carries out physical activity. Why
Being lazy is normal
Or sedentary people are abnormal
Let’s try to understand the correlation between motivation and sport .
How human motivation works
To try to give an answer we need to study how human motivation is made. Today – thanks to neuroscience – the picture is much clearer. Our brain is composed of different functional layers, which correspond to different moments of evolution. In some ways, its “construction” process recalls that of a building: the foundations, the layers at the base, are also the oldest. And at the base of our brain we find the so-called “reptilian” part, which appeared evolutionarily with reptiles. Its main priority is to save metabolic energy.
Animals in nature do not have problems with being overweight: they are confronted daily with the opposite problem, the scarcity of food. Here is what they are for and where the feelings of fatigue originate: the reptilian brain signals us that we are consuming energy. It is an unpleasant sensation which is intended to preserve the animal’s strength. If we did not feel fatigue, we would continually risk an energy catastrophe that would lead us to extinction. That’s why – if it doesn’t have a strong meaning for our brain – we don’t like to struggle. Many experiments prove that when energy expenditure has an important significance (for example because survival is at stake and we have to escape from the lion that wants to eat us), the perception of fatigue is mitigated.
It is no coincidence, in fact – when our health is at stake – and the lion takes the form of risk of serious pathologies, people are pushed to come out of sedentariness to embrace physical exercise on a regular basis. But leaving out these extremes, from the above it becomes clear that if we want to learn to accept fatigue more, we must give it an important meaning. This is exactly what people who are driven by a passion do. Those who are driven by passion (what psychologists define as “intrinsic motivation”, the most powerful form of human motivation) is willing to make sacrifices, to work hard, to sweat without complaining in order to reach the desired goal. When there is passion, you can’t wait to go to the gym or to be able to put on your running shoes. Okay, but then how does passion work How can we “hook” it to exercise
Motivation and sport: the role of dopamine
E is surprising, but also passion has to do with the reptilian brain. To help the animal achieve its instinctual goals, the reptilian brain links these goals to a system of internal gratification. This system is based on the secretion of a famous neurotransmitter, dopamine . It induces in the animal an anticipatory pleasure (which we humans call “desire”), which supports it in the pursuit of the goal. In other words, when the conditions for reaching – for example – food become very difficult, dopamine helps the animal to “hold on”. It does so by anticipating the pleasure (the famous “mouth watering”) that he will feel when he reaches the goal.
Now, it may seem surprising to you, but human passions are also based on this mechanism: in the case of sport, the activity object of passion – running, skiing, going to the mountains, swimming … – has been linked to the dopaminergic system, so adesire mechanism . We long to repeat the experience that gave us pleasure. And if we struggle every morning to get up to go to the office, when it comes to reaching the ski fields we are willing to get up at dawn.
Beyond rationality: desire
These considerations already contain an important practical indication: if our passions arise from a dopaminergic imprint, to undertake an activity it is not enough to have rational reasons, as smokers or most sedentary people know well: to do, or to stop doing, desire must be involved. Abstract rationality does not push motivation. Health services print hundreds of brochures every year on the rational benefits of exercise, yet people still sit on the couch. And now you understand why.
How passions are born and how they intervene between the combination of motivation and sport
But how our passions are born What is the secret to hooking passion to an activity, to have dopamine
According to many recently published studies, dopamine is released when we manage to achieve a objective and we feel competent : that is, when we finally feel “good”, when we understand that we have made it.
Let’s take a practical example: a lady decides to do physical activity to lose weight. She would like to run but she is unable because she is too out of practice. She then decides that she will alternate one minute of running with four of walking for a total of thirty minutes on alternate days. At first it’s hard: everything seems boring, hard and even foolish. She also feels ridiculous and she would like to quit. But she manages to hold on for over a month. Slowly the minutes of running become two, then three. After two months, for the first time, she manages to run for thirty minutes in a row. She makes them very softly, it’s true. But when she realizes what she has achieved, she feels a very strong feeling of pleasure: the same that in her life has always accompanied a learning, the feeling of having made it. She doesn’t know, but it’s dopamine. She goes home, but something has changed. Now the desire to run begins to prevail over boredom, the feeling of fatigue and inadequacy.
This is an excellent (and likely) example of the virtuous circle that underlies the development of a passion : I TIGHTEN MY TEETH AND I COMMIT → I DO IT (SENSE OF COMPETENCE) → PLEASURE → DOPAMINA → DESIRE → INCREASED COMMITMENT.
Motivation and sport: some practical indications
Let’s try to derive some practical indications from what we have said so far to explain the correlation between motivation and sport :
- We have a little advantage in creating a little passion for physical activity or sport if we choose something that attracts us at least a little, not something that is fashionable or that others recommend.
- Then feel a sense of competence we have to set our expectations, not compare ourselves with the parameters, the performance of others etc .. The lady in the example chooses at the beginning to deal with something that is within her reach, which represents a moderate exit from her area of comfort. If she had chosen to confront the performance of the young neighbor who runs the marathon under three hours every Sunday, it would have been impossible for her to feel capable; and her sense of frustration would soon make her give up.
- However, beware of the opposite mistake: always adjusting to our limits, to feel competent it is necessary to accept to step out of our comfort zone a little bit. The lady agreed to feel a little discomfort, to initially feel a little incapable and inadequate and to struggle. Without a minimum of stress there will be no growth. Any feeling of having made it will be precluded.
- The key ingredient of the process is to have a little patience (or resilience it would be more correct to say). Most people fail this process because they cannot stay slightly out of their comfort zone for the time it takes to have practical results. It is the results that make you feel competent and that stimulate dopamine, the fact of going from one minute of running every four to thirty consecutive minutes. It is estimated that on average the time to have a significant result in this field takes from one to two months of effort.
To deepen the theme of motivation and sport : Pietro Trabucchi, Opus, Corbaccio, 2018