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How to Trick Your Brain into Giving Your Body a Better Workout (Part 1)

Recent scientific studies have shown that tiredness from physical exercise may be a state of mind, not of body. In Part 1 of this series, Get-Fit Guy will explore the idea of tricking your brain into giving your body a better workout. Plus, find out what is "the zone"?

By
Ben Greenfield
August 27, 2013
Episode #151

Page 2 of 2

...counting reps, making it to a small intermediate goal like the next telephone pole, listening to music, engaging in self-talk, or even using mental visualization exercises before your big workout or event.

What Dr. Noakes calls the "Central Governor" model of fatigue is based on the fact that if your brain or your heart run out of oxygen or experience sustained periods of hypoxia (low oxygen), then you can die or undergo permanent damage to these organs. So your brain (aka, the Central Governor) is wired to limit how hard, how heavy, or how long you can go by reducing your nervous system's recruitment of muscle fibers. And this reduced recruitment causes the sensation of fatigue. Your brain simply says "stop" and your body obeys.

It's possible that the fatigue goes beyond simply oxygen, and may also be based on the amount of ketones (fatty acids) or trace amounts of glucose available to your vital organs - so you can think of the Central Governor model as a kind of survival mechanism in which your brain makes a conscious effort to limit energy expenditure in order to save fuel for other precious organs such as your heart, your lungs, and your brain. 

Decision Making Fatigue

Interestingly, fatigue can be compounded if you are distracted by other details, such as problem solving, complexity of an exercise or movement, or distracting thoughts about work, family, or life.

Dr. Samuele Marcore, a UK sports scientist, believes that because of this, fatigue can be a perception of your mind just as much as a physiological state. He bases this on the fact that the anterior cingulate cortex in your brain is the area responsible for control of your heart rate and breathing, but also the area responsible for making complex decisions, paying attention to detail, and doing things like figuring out if you are supposed to be using your right leg or left leg, interpreting a financial spreadsheet, or not getting distracted by commotion going on around you. In other words, the more you're requiring your brain to do at any given time, the faster it's going to fatigue - regardless of how fit your muscles, lungs, or heart are.

Interestingly, fatigue can be compounded if you are distracted by other details, such as problem solving, complexity of an exercise or movement, or distracting thoughts about work, family, or life.

Dr. Marcore argues that this kind of physical fatigue is simply a matter conflict resolution - a struggle between the part of your brain that wants you to quit and the part that wants you to keep going - and that the more "decision-making" fatigue you're subjected to during exercise, the faster you're going to physically fail. 

This belief that fatigue is more a state of mind than an actual physiological state makes perfect sense when you watch runners who seem to be on the brink of complete physical break-down suddenly shift gears into into an all-out sprint for the last 200-300 yards of a 5K race. They looked like they could not run another step just a few moments before and suddenly, they're zooming forward with renewed energy.

Shocking Your Brain Into Submission

A brand new study on cyclists adds even more credence to the idea that your brain is ultimately responsible for fatigue. In this study, Brazilian sports scientists used a non-invasive form of brain stimulation called transcranial direct-current stimulation (tDCS) to apply a tiny electrical current to the cortex in the brain. Remember, this cortex is the primary culprit when it comes to exercise fatigue. The idea was that this stimulation would briefly interrupt the way neurons in the cortex communicate with each other, and distract the brain from shutting down the body. Of course, there was also a control group of cyclists that also had the electrodes attached, but didn't get any stimulation. 

So what were the results of this brain tweaking? After 20 minutes of real or fake brain stimulation, the cyclists completed an all-out ride to exhaustion. And sure enough - the cyclists who underwent the electrical stimulation had significantly lower heart rates, lower perceived exertion, and a 4% higher power output (that may sound small, but is actually huge for a cyclist).

The researchers noted that this increased performance may go above and beyond mere "distraction" of the brain, but may actually be caused by a mingling of pleasure and pain centers in the brain. This is because the right side of the cortex is strongly linked to feelings of pain and physical exertion, while the left side of the cortex is linked to pleasant feelings and emotions that occur when you one see someone smile, or hear your favorite song, or cuddle up with loved one. 

What Is “The Zone”?

Interestingly, this feeling of pleasure or happiness in the presence of physical exertion is very similar to what is often described being in "the zone." 

In psychology, being in "the zone" is a mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the entire process.  When an athlete reaches the zone during physical performance, they often achieve their personal bests, while describing their performance as "effortless." And the zone is not just an "airy-fairy" state. In sports performance laboratories, alpha brain wave production of 8-12 Hz has been shown to correlate with these zone-like states of relaxed alertness.

Ultimately, the final take-away message from Dr. Noakes, Dr. Marcora, and those crazy Brazilian cyclist-electrocuting scientists is this: If your brain is healthy enough to optimally process information and communicate with your body, and trained enough to resist getting distracted, then you are not only going to perform better, but you are also going to equip your brain to achieve that level of effortless performance called “the zone.”

So let's say you want to override your Central Governor, distract your brain, enter the coveted "zone," and push your body and mind beyond what you've ever imagined possible. And let's say you want to do it without wearing a giant cap full of electrodes and undergoing mild shock therapy treatment. Is this possible?

Yes! In Part 2 of this series, you’re going to find out exactly how.

In the meantime, if you have more questions about how to trick your brain into giving your body a better workout, post them at Facebook.com/GetFitGuy!

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