Welcome to the not-so-random thoughts of a sport science and neuroscience student.
Ever felt like missing training? You’re not alone. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, Australians of all ages are exercising and participating in sport and recreational activities less – and it’s a downward trend.
While you may not be part of this statistic, perhaps there are times you have not exercised or not wanted to, and its often due to a perceived lack of time or lack of energy after school or work.
We lose time to whatever we choose to do instead of exercise and in Australia, that increasingly involves doing something involving a screen. The feeling we don’t have the energy to train is our brain feeling tired rather than our body not having the energy. Research suggests that it’s brain energy we run out of: we use a lot of it exercising self-control. Self-control is the ability to make choices that support our long-term goals (health, fitness, wellbeing, competitive goals). In neuroscience, self-control happens in the cerebral cortex – the grey matter – and is an Executive Function that takes a lot of energy. Glucose, in fact. Don’t reach for the chocolate – it’s less about consuming glucose than mobilizing and allocating it.
Glucose is stored in the brain as glycogen and the cerebral cortex – where our Executive Function takes place – can’t store much, so may be very sensitive to shortages. Cognitively demanding tasks like deciding to exercise instead of doing something involving a screen, uses more glucose than a decision that doesn’t involve self-control.
At the end of the day, if we got ourselves to class or work on time, did not fight with siblings/parents or road-rage anyone on the way, ate a decent lunch, kept hydrated, didn’t spend more money than we have – guess what? The well might have run dry in terms of exercise.
The good news is: like a muscle or our energy systems, we can train our self-control with regular exercise; we can replenish it with sleep; and we can counteract our temporary deficiencies, not by eating chocolate but with motivation. The neurological mechanisms by which motivation does this are still being explored, it is possible that if we view a task as important, we activate a brief stress response, similar to the arousal we activate before performance and our hormones help us out.
And there’s more good news: an Australian study showed that volunteers who stuck to a two- month exercise program did better in self-control tested in the lab and reported eating healthier food, monitoring their spending more carefully and improving study habits.
If you “train” for a sport or recreational activity with the right attitude, you are probably also training your self-control.
But… like all the other things you train, you need to do it consistently and recover properly. And get yourself to training.