What Doing Hard Things Does to Our Brains
I’ve been a full-time fitness professional for long enough now that people who know me at the gym maybe don’t know where I started (no folks, I didn’t plan to be a gym owner or nutrition coach upon entering the workforce). So I’ll tell you! I got my degree in social work and for eight years, worked in child welfare. My focus was on trauma and how it affects the brain, so, neuroscience without being a scientist. I have multiple different certifications, all centered around how our neurology affects our behavior.
Even to me, that sounds like I’m bragging, but I’m trying to paint a picture that I am deeply passionate about our brains, and regularly in awe of what they do, and what WE can do in our daily lives to impact how it works.
When talking about the brain, one of the things you may have heard in regard to why it is so remarkable is its plasticity; meaning, its ability to be easily shaped or molded. This is extremely encouraging when it comes to children who have experienced trauma, because trauma significantly affects the health of your brain, but the GOOD news is that you can right it.
This is also good news for us in the fitness world, whether you have experienced trauma or not (hint: most of us have), because one of the things that positively impacts your brain is exercise!
We’ve studied exercise long enough now to know that exercise directly affects our hormones; lowering some and increasing others.
I am not an Adam Sandler fan at all, but my husband is, and the only reason he’s ever heard the words “medulla oblongata” is because of the movie Waterboy. The quote refers to alligators being aggressive because of their enlarged medulla oblongatas, or their brainstems. I don’t know anything about the neurodevelopment of an alligator, but I do know that your brainstem is responsible for releasing the hormones cortisol and adrenaline. These are your “stress” hormones. When in a dangerous situation, the higher functioning, more complex parts of your brain halt, and the brain stem takes over, because the higher stuff (feelings) are not helpful when you are in a state of threat. Your brainstem says “we gotta get out of this situation” which is where we fight, flight or freeze. It pumps out cortisol and adrenaline so that you take action – FAST.
Sometimes, though, (a lot of times, in 2023) our brain perceives that we are stressed even when not in a state of physical danger. So your brain sends out that cortisol and adrenaline. The more that happens, the more your body says “we need these!” and eventually, you get to a place where that brainstem is overactive and you have too much cortisol and adrenaline. That manifests itself in several ways; some possibilities are anxiety, sleeplessness, and depression to name a few.
But going back to the good news: exercise has the ability to lower those stress hormones! You don’t have to think about it or will it into existence. It just happens. Another thing exercise does is increase things that make you feel good. You have neurotransmitters called dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine that all increase when you’ve done a challenging workout. Again, you don’t have to focus on making it happen–you work out, your brain responds with a reward.
That’s a very basic breakdown of hormonal things that happen during exercise, but to take it one step further, when those things are happening in your brain, you also form new synaptic connections–basically little pathways, and the more pathways you create in your brain, the better off you are.
So let’s say you’re in the middle of a challenging workout with your trainer. There are a lot of sit-ups, and the weight on the dumbbell box step-ups seems a little scary to you. Entering into a workout with a positive mindset is huge, but let’s be honest, we’re not perfect. It doesn’t happen every time. So, you start the workout nervous, but you keep going. You chip away at the mountain of reps in front of you, and sure, you take breaks, you sweat a lot, but you do every step-up with the weight your trainer prescribes. Then, at the end of that workout, a new little pathway is formed in your brain–a pathway that reminds you how many sit-ups and heavy box step-ups you can do in a workout. Additionally, that you can do something you didn’t think you could.
If you’ve worked out with me before in a particularly hard workout, or a workout I’m not very excited about, you have probably heard me say “we can do hard things.” And it’s true. We can; I know that we can because we’ve done it before. History shows me I’ve gotten through a hard workout before, and I can do it again. And the cool thing about your brain is that it doesn’t just compartmentalize this victory mentality to workouts. If you push through a challenging workout and do something you didn’t think you could do, it gives you confidence to get through hard things outside of the gym as well. Maybe it’s something you messed up at work and now have to have a difficult conversation with your supervisor, or maybe it’s getting through a bad break-up, or caring for a sick loved one. When you overcome tough workouts, your capacity to get through other things with confidence also increases.
And that should give us hope.
Working out does more for us than just build muscle and lose weight. Challenging yourself with exercise makes for a more confident, capable version of yourself in and outside of it. We’re better equipped to take on whatever the world throws at us by intentionally pushing ourselves to be a little better, a little stronger, a little bit more bad-assy within the four walls of the gym.
Now go crush that workout – because you can do hard things. Your brain says so.