Your alarm goes off at the same time it does every day: 6 a.m. You feel groggy and think briefly about how warm and cozy your bed is, but the feeling doesn't last long. You quickly roll over and pull on your sports bra, leggings, and an old T-shirt. You lace up your sneakers and head outside for your morning run, basking in the solo time you have ahead of you. It's just you, the crisp morning air, and the steady, meditative sound of your sneakers hitting the ground.
This is the morning routine of someone who craves exercise. And if your mornings look a lot like this, that's great—but many of us aren't there yet. If you want to figure out how to program your brain to crave working out, read on.
We all have that friend who would rather hit the treadmill than a glass of wine after a long day. That's because their brains understand that exercise makes them feel good, causing them to enjoy doing it regularly and turn to it in times of stress.
"The limbic system—specifically the mesolimbic dopamine system—learns what feels good. It's the reward center," says Ilene Ruhoy, M.D., Ph.D. and medical director at the Center for Healing Neurology. "It learns through repetition of that reward, which is why once we learn exercise helps our mood, we return again and again and eventually can prevent that bad mood."
She adds that regular exercise helps increase the neurotransmitters that reduce anxiety and make us feel content, satisfied, and joyful—which is probably why you've heard that exercise can act as an antidepressant. "Exercise helps to balance the ratio of excitatory and inhibitory neurotransmitters—precisely what antidepressants work to do," she continues. "Most of the antidepressants used today work to increase levels of serotonin and norepinephrine."
Have you ever heard someone say, "I need to go to Pilates to work out this bad day"? I haven't. But I can't say the same about running or even a long sweat session on the elliptical.
Elizabeth Lombardo, Ph.D., and author of Better Than Perfect: 7 Strategies to Crush Your Inner Critic and Create a Life You Love, says that workouts like cycling, running, swimming, and other cardio classes are typically the workouts people crave. Why? Endorphins.
"Cardio is more addictive than running because of its higher release of endorphins," says Ilene. "Exercise that increases heart rate regulates endorphin and enkephalin receptors—which is what narcotics (opioids) do."
Of course, becoming too addicted to anything isn't a good thing—even if that thing is exercise. So Lombardo notes that people should be cautious of skipping social activities or even work because of their workout. That could be a sign that you've taken things too far.
When it comes to habit formation, a lot of the legwork is simply showing up day after day. But according to Elizabeth, there are some hacks that can speed up the process along the way.
Find a workout you actually enjoy doing, whether that's kickboxing or yoga. And try to make it social. "Make your workout fun, not only physically but also socially by hanging out with friends who are also working out," she says. "Focus on the positive feelings you experience while you are working out—then energy and a positive mood boost."
Ilene says that being consistent with one specific time of day that you exercise is the way to go. "Find a time that works, be it morning, noon, or night. But be consistent with that time," she says. "We are circadian beings, and the best way to create a habit and an 'addiction' is to create a routine whereby the brain learns to crave it at a particular time of day."
Got all that? Good. You'll be craving the gym in no time.