Your Brain on CrossFit: Part 1 - Dopamine

Getting our DOSE

Every once in a while, I get asked about CrossFit and why I do it. As any CrossFitter knows, there is no greater feeling on Earth than someone else bringing up CrossFit so that you get to talk about it!

And this, among other things, is the subject of the articles you'll see from The 11th Skill over the next four weeks. Why do we love to talk about CrossFit? What is it about our "good cult" that makes us:

  • Care more about our Fran time or CrossFit Total than our waist measurement?
  • High-five and hug each other all the goddamn time?
  • Compete with our gym mates but cheer them on at the same time?
  • Push through pain barriers reserved for women in labour and Olympic rowers? 

It all comes down to getting our "DOSE" of happiness, four chemicals that are responsible for our love of CrossFit, the survival of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, and most importantly, our happiness and mental fitness in the 21st century.

  • Dopamine
  • Oxytocin
  • Serotonin
  • Endorphin

Over the next four weeks, I'll be writing about each of these amazing little molecules and what they do for our happiness. And we're starting with the most powerful and dangerous of them all.


Dopamine: CrossFit Is a Game

"Just because you're 250 pounds doesn't excuse or exempt you from needing 25 pullups." - Greg Glassman

What's your 1RM deadlift? How many unbroken pullups can you do? Which movement are you focusing on during your open gym time? 

More importantly, why do you even have open gym time? Isn't the WOD enough?

The answer, of course, is that the WOD is definitely enough... if you want to be healthier, lose some weight, look better naked, or any of the other reasons that people "go to the gym". But you're not "going to the gym" anymore; you're pursuing goals.

Some CrossFit gyms have you write down goals, but many don't. And yet, every single person I know who has been at it for at least six months has goals in mind, and they dedicate extra time to achieving them.

The truth is that you don't need a goals board, because you've got something more powerful in your corner: dopamine.

Dopamine is a powerfully addictive chemical that our body makes in response to identifying and receiving rewards. Our ancestors would recognise a tasty-looking deer, and they would get a little hint of dopamine. Their brains would say, "If you get that deer, you'll get more dopamine," and that would motivate them to hunt the deer and stay alive.

Fast forward to now, and you don't need to hunt deer to stay alive. But you still crave dopamine. It's why you play little games on our phones: can I get more points than last time in this pointless little Skinner Box? But it's also why CrossFit works - because it's a game! The system of recording every result in every workout works just like any other game: it creates tangible goals that we can see and achieve.

You might come to your first class with vague notions of weight loss or functional fitness (and you will use those to rationalise your addiction later on!) But pay attention to the way your conversations change at the box.

Your mindset on your first repeat workout will have nothing to do with your physique or our health (unless you're injured, of course). You see the workout, and you get to replay the game. A little taste of dopamine flows through your brain. You want the faster time, the heavier lift. You want to beat the game. 

That Glassman quote above was about the need for functional fitness. But I see it differently. I don't need 25 pullups because I want to be functionally fit; I need 25 pullups because at the moment, my best score is 24 pullups.


The Dangers of Dopamine

A good friend of mine is paying off a lot of debt right now, because her ex was an addict. He didn't use heroin or meth, and he wasn't an alcoholic. He was hooked on dopamine, and he got his fix from gambling.

An industry worth over USD $40 million that causes so many health problems must have a massive drawcard. As I mentioned above, dopamine is seriously addictive. Dopamine tells you that you need to achieve goals and make progress to survive and thrive in the world, and losing money tells you that you're not making progress. So you go back to the table and try to win it back. 

Now, I'm oversimplifying things here, but the point is clear: pursuing goals at all costs can be devastating. It compels bodybuilders to become freakishly huge, beyond any sense of aesthetics or competition. It causes athletes to cheat. It alienates you from your relationships, removes any sense of proportion and balance, and can destroy your life and the lives of people you care about. 

So remember, there's more to life than dopamine. Thankfully, there are mechanisms in CrossFit that help to balance them out, and you need to know how to carry them over to the rest of your life in order to be mentally fit and happy.


Using Dopamine For Good

Carrying this knowledge into your everyday activities is critical for mental fitness. Know that you need dopamine. It makes you happy, and it's great for your body (in moderation, like everything else). 

Since you need it, and since it comes from achievement be deliberate in what you set out to achieve. Learn from CrossFit (and Candy Crush): set a simple, easy goal up front that you can achieve, then use that little rush of dopamine to set a slightly bigger goal, and so on.

Attach numbers to your goals, but more importantly, attach feelings to them. Look at how people react to getting their first muscle-up, and see yourself in that position.

For a slightly different look, watch this video by Benjamin Zander of the Boston Philharmonic. In it, he shares one of his motivational strategies with his students: he tells them that their grade is his class is an "A", but only if they do the following task, which is brilliant:

"They have to write me a letter in the first two weeks of the class... the letter must begin with the words, 'Dear Mr. Zander, I got my "A" because...' describing who they will have become by the following May to receive this extraordinary grade, and I tell them to fall passionately in love with the person they're describing... who they would be, who they could be, who they see themselves as... the person I teach is the person that they have described in their letter."

Finally, remember that dopamine is something of an anti-social chemical, and that there are other brain chemicals that lead to happiness, and that the balance between them is very important. Next week, we'll be looking at the most social chemical your body knows how to produce, so stay tuned.


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