A recent news splash revealed that our genes might have an effect on how much each of us enjoys exercising. Headlines read like this:
- “Genes May Dictate How Much You Like Exercise.” (WebMD.com)
- “Do You Hate Working Out at the Gym? You’re Not Lazy, It’s Genetic, Scientists Claim” (DailyMail.com)
- “Hate Exercise? Maybe It’s in Your Genes” (Mercola.com)
- “Hardwired to Hate Exercise” and “Don’t Want to Go to the Gym? Blame Science!” (WallStreetJournal.com)
- “It’s Not Your Fault If You Hate Exercise. Blame Your Mom.” (Cosmopolitan.com)
As often happens with health-related articles, there are two main errors in these articles: (1) Oversimplification of study results to write click-bait headlines (there are a couple above that do not do this), and (2) the classic journalistic mistake of “burying the lead.”
What’s All the Fuss?
A University of Georgia study started with rats selectively bred to be either fit and active or unfit and inactive. They found differences in dopamine activity between these two groups and, subsequently, launched a clinical trial focusing on about 3,000 human adults. The findings indicated that about 25% of the people had genes that interfere with the release of dopamine.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter (a chemical messenger in the brain) responsible for our drives, desire, motivation and, to a lesser extent, reward. This is another error in the reporting and even in the comments by the researchers: Positioning dopamine as a “pleasure” neurotransmitter is not totally correct. Dopamine’s largest role is in helping us decide what to strive for and what we desire. It gets us to go after what matters to us. It’s contribution to pleasure is quick and short-lived, while its role in creating want is larger and longer-lasting.
Bottom line: Dopamine is less responsible for the three minutes of pleasure after eating ice cream than it is for the three days of craving for more ice cream in the days that follow.
It’s easy to see why the media had a field day with these results and generated the flood of headlines above. The overly simplified message is that you have no say in whether you love or hate exercise and this is absolutely not true.
The study did show that 25% of people in the study had genes that interfered with the release of dopamine, thus preventing the quick hit of reward and longer-lasting drive to continue to pursue exercise.
The other big problem is that these articles buried the lead. In other words, they should’ve focued on the fact that the study revealed that a good number of people don’t like the common notion of exercise.
What is This Thing Called “Exercise”?
What is “exercise?” What images pop into most people’s mind when it comes to exercise? Below is a screenshot of the top image results from typing “exercise” into a search engine. It’s not hard to imagine that the average person in the real world struggling to find any kind of success with exercise might be turned off by these images.
Many people don’t enjoy spending time in weight rooms filled with odd-looking equipment, or in group exercise classes where it’s loud and intense and it seems as though everyone is better and fitter than you. And yet these are many people’s common notions of exercise.
When you do things you enjoy, you feel good. If you move or exercise in ways that you don’t enjoy, you won’t feel good. If the common notion of “exercise” is something you abhor, you won’t get enjoyment out of that form of physical activity (and you may not get as much benefit from it either). Even the researchers in this study pointed this out—here is a comment from the lead researcher, Rodney Dishman, PhD:
"If you haven't found something which is pleasurable, either the activity or the people you're doing it with, then you don't have much reason to continue it. When people start viewing exercise as a duty or obligation, then that's not a formula for sustained activity. That just puts people in a constant state of dissatisfaction.”
That’s it right there. As I often say, you don’t have to love physical activity, but you do have to at least get a crush on it.
The main message of this study is that if you hate exercise, then that type of exercise isn’t for you. Your body craves physical activity. It really does. All of your tissues function better when moved the right way. Your skin looks better, your brain functions better and you just feel better when you do all that you do.
Although some people may have a genetic dislike of broccoli, no one has a genetic hatred of all vegetables. There are no fish born with a genetic disdain for water. We cannot have an inherent, across-the-board dislike for that which sustains life and enhances vitality. Many of our dislikes are more from learning than from genetics.
In the end, this study proves that common concepts of fitness (as depicted above) only work for less than 20% of the population.
Living With Less Dopamine
If you are someone who genetically has less drive to keep physical activity a part of your life and feel less reward from doing so, it becomes even more important to get “what” you do right for you. If you have a genetic dopamine deficiency and you get less satisfaction from things, finding the absolute right form of fitness for you is essential.