Changing a bad habit can be tough. Whether you’re dealing with overeating, drug addiction, obsessive surfing on the Internet or some other activity you’d prefer to stop, good intentions are often not enough to see you through.
But there’s hope for getting your life on track. The answer may lie in rewiring your brain. . .
Medical researchers are homing in on ways to naturally shift the way brain cells release and process neurotransmitters. And if they can master that trick, it may hold the key to giving your life a much-needed makeover — fast.
You can try a couple of these methods yourself – You may find they empower you enough to make the changes you’d like to make.
The Neurotransmitter that Rewards You
Much of this research involves what’s called the brain’s dopamine pathways – networks of neurons connecting various sections of your brain that release and respond to the neurotransmitter dopamine.
Dopamine is linked to rewards and pleasure. When you achieve a coveted goal or satisfy a craving, the release of dopamine in the brain floods you with delightful, positive feelings.
Be warned, though, this neurotransmitter has a dark side. If you are addicted to drugs or you’re a slave to food cravings, the links between these compulsions and the satisfying release of dopamine can make it harder to resist temptation.
However, research at the University of Buffalo shows you can use aerobic exercise to rewire parts of the brain’s dopamine pathways to help you shift your own behavior.
In the Buffalo lab tests, the researchers discovered that aerobic exercise – like walking, running, swimming or biking – changes the dopamine receptors in the brain so that the exercise itself may create and satisfy a need for a dopamine reward.1 Thus you can make dopamine support your efforts to avoid harmful habits.
A number of other studies support the Buffalo results and show that exercise can offset the cravings to indulge in things like binge eating, illegal drugs and smoking.
Exercise Helps People Quit Smoking and Alcohol
For example, a study at the University of South Florida shows that exercising or doing yoga can help you give up smoking and resist a craving for nicotine.2 An investigation at the University of Texas that involved other institutions demonstrates that moderately intense exercise may help people struggling with alcoholism manage their moods with less anxiety.3
And researchers in Norway discovered that playing sports like soccer or doing circuit weight training can improve efforts to deal with drug addiction.4
Structure Your Days
Another way to modify the function of the dopamine system in your brain to help you live a healthier lifestyle is to structure your daily activities. Then, along with your structured day, you can set yourself daily tasks of limited scope that you can complete and cross off your list of things to do.
According to researchers, combining a structured routine with goals you know you can accomplish pretty easily may lead to periodic dopamine releases in your brain that reinforce your healthy lifestyle practices.
Studies shows that the dopamine networks in our brain are set to periodically release dopamine at consistent times in the day – according to what are called ultradian rhythms.5 For instance, these ultradian cycles may be why so many people eat three meals a day equally spaced apart – the meals are in sync with dopamine fluctuations. So scientists theorize that by structuring your day – exercising at the same time daily, for instance – you can reinforce your healthy behavior because it’s synchronized with the function of the brain’s dopamine networks.
At the same time, by accomplishing small tasks during the day you may also stimulate the release of dopamine as your brain recognizes your accomplishments, even if they seem minor at the time.
It’s an old insight but one too often neglected: Setting goals for ourselves and reaching them makes us feel good about ourselves.
And the new research suggests those good feelings may go some way toward replacing the good feelings we associate with overeating, smoking or drinking alcohol.
Now, of course, doing things this way does not guarantee success. But it’s an important tool you can put to use to help your efforts at being more productive and healthy.