No Motivation to Exercise? Dopamine Receptors May Feed Sedentary Lifestyle

Health is usually on the minds of most people during January as they try to stick to their New Year’s resolutions to lose weight, get fit and improve overall well-being. Interestingly enough, dopamine could help explain why the New Year’s crowd at the gym starts to drop off significantly throughout February.

In a recent study published in the journal Cell Metabolism, researchers sought to find out why obese people or animals seemed to struggle so much to stay active. It’s common to assume that trying to move with excess weight is more physically demanding and uncomfortable, but the researchers suspected there was more going on in the brain that influenced such behavior.

Two groups of mice were observed by researchers. One group was fed a high-fat diet, and the other was fed a regular diet for a period of 18 weeks. The mice that were fed the high-fat diet had already gained weight by the second week — and they showed less movement long before they gained the majority of their weight.

Since the high-fat group exhibited less movement early on in the study, excess weight alone was likely not the only factor at play. When the researchers examined several different parts of the dopamine pathway in the mice, they found that the high-fat group of mice that had gained weight were deficient in the D2-type (D2R) dopamine receptor.

Feelings of reward are triggered by dopamine receptors in the striatum, which causes the brain to want more. This helps to explain how any kind of good habit — like exercise — or bad habit — like detrimental addictions — can become so deeply ingrained into our lifestyles.

In addition to looking at dopamine pathway, the researchers also investigated how sedentary behavior was connected to weight gain. Mice with normal weights that had the same D2 dopamine receptor defect didn’t gain weight as quickly on a high-fat diet, but did once they started moving less.

Other factors are likely involved in addition to the D2 dopamine receptor defect, but the researchers point out that most people focus on mental willpower to change their lifestyle habits. Given that the study’s findings suggest that physical components have an impact, willpower alone may not be enough.

So if you’re struggling to stay motivated to exercise and it’s not even the end of January yet, should you give up?

No, but you should probably change your current exercise regimen if it doesn’t feel sustainable. Instead, consider scaling it back a bit so that you’re not trying to maintain a routine that’s overly ambitious.

Dopamine receptors in your brain can actually be rewired to obtain that rewarding feeling from exercise thanks to their malleability. The key to rewiring your brain for exercise is taking small — perhaps very small — doable steps that you can stick with over a longer period of time.

Take a look at the current exercise goals you’ve set for yourself, and be honest about what you just don’t enjoy. Whether it’s the intensity, the type of activity, the length of time you have to do it or anything else, experiment with changing some of those components so that you don’t feel like you’re resisting them so much.

It’s not new and shiny advice, but the trick to making exercise a part of your lifestyle is doing something that doesn’t feel like torture. Eventually, over a longer period of time where you slowly but continuously improve your exercise routine, what you used to think was torture may actually be your new favorite form of physical activity.

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Photo Credit: bengarrison/Flickr


Jim Ven
Jim Ven2 years ago

thanks for sharing.

Anne P
Anne P2 years ago

I object to the use of laboratory mice for this study. They were doubtless killed to "examine different parts of the dopamine pathway."

Ingrid H
Past Member 2 years ago

thank you

Richard A
Richard A2 years ago

Thank you for this helpful article.

Jennifer F
Jennifer F2 years ago

Thanks for sharing!

Lisa M
Lisa M2 years ago


Lisa M
Lisa M2 years ago


Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara2 years ago


Quanta Kiran
Quanta Kiran2 years ago


Siyus C
Siyus Copetallus2 years ago

Thank you for sharing.