Your Brain on CrossFit: Part 2 - Oxytocin

Balancing our DOSE

Last week, we began learning about the chemicals in our brain that are released by engagement with the CrossFit community, and how we can create the conditions to release those chemicals in our everyday lives.

The chemicals, you will recall are these:

  • Dopamine
  • Oxytocin
  • Serotonin
  • Endorphin

We started with dopamine, because there was potential for a neat acronym, but also because it is very powerful, very addictive, and it makes us very selfish. There is nothing more selfish than achieving our goals, and dopamine release is our reward for that.

But we need balance. At extreme levels, dopamine feeds paranoia and hallucinations, but even at normal levels, singular focus on our own achievements means that we're losing out. 

So, let's look at the most selfless of the four chemicals today, and see what it has to offer.


Oxytocin: Layers and Layers of Love

That photo was taken when my partner and I visited Chikara CrossFit in Tokyo. There's a lot of layers to uncover here, but first a little primer on the "warm-and-fuzzy" oxytocin.

Oxytocin is released by your pituitary gland, and while most people see it as the "love chemical" because of its role in strengthening bonds between couples and families, it has a subtle dark side. Studies show that men who are dosed with oxytocin tend to feel more strongly - good or bad - about their mothers' parenting, and express more in-group loyalty and hostility towards outsiders. (Oxytocin studies are almost never done with women because it can induce labour in pregnant women.)

So this little hormone is about amplifying the experiences felt within a community. Now, let's peel back the three layers of love in the photo above.

There's the first one: the connection between the two of us on the ground. That took a while; we've known each other for years. Then there's the second layer: we're surrounded by people who invited us to work out with them and were willing to take a photo with us at the end. They were super cool, and very welcoming.

Now, the third layer is more interesting. These photos are never taken before the workout. But you only need me to explain that to you if you don't do CrossFit! All the CrossFitters reading this know that this photo is after a workout, because it just isn't done beforehand (and if it is, it never looks as genuine) because the bonding experienced during the workout is what gives everyone the feeling required to smile afterwards!

The point is this: the affiliate system in CrossFit has given rise to a tribe bound together by oxytocin, which at the same time makes those within the tribe wary of outsiders (like those who train at F45 or globo gyms). Incidentally, if you're noticing the "us-versus-them" tone, and the similarities to cult behaviours... well, that's very interesting, isn't it?


The Benefits of Oxytocin (and How To Get Them)

The health benefits of oxytocin are pretty awesome. It helps to alleviate stress and anxiety, and reduce cravings of addictive drugs. Oxytocin also has something of a circular relationship with sex - more sex leads to more release of oxytocin, which leads to great libido, which leads to more sex, and so on. Best feedback loop ever.

Deeper relationships with loved ones and stronger ties to communities keep us healthier. People notice more when we need help and support, and we're more likely to get it. Married people live longer because there's someone pestering them to go to the doctor when they're sick!

Take a leaf out of CrossFit's book, and build a culture of trust with the people around you. Increase body contact in your life: more handshakes, hugs and high fives! Make meaningful connections with the people you spend most of your time around - get to know them and find out what you have in common with them.

Most of us can't choose our colleagues, so starting there makes a world of sense. Most of my favourite people have come from my professional relationships - have I just been lucky? Nobody can be that lucky; the truth is that everybody is fascinating and wonderful, we just don't get to find that out because we're stuck in our own little world half the time. Get out there and trust people, and you'll be surprised how much is returned to you. 

One last thing: I was talking about this with a colleague last week, and she said that it make her feel cynical to learn how brain chemistry plays such a role in human bonding, almost as if that knowledge cheapens things. But I disagree. Knowing that I can create strong bonds with anybody I choose gives me hope for the future, and for humanity, and gives me a great deal of appreciation for the people in my life, who could have chosen to love anybody, because they chose to love me.


If you liked this article, start at the beginning of series here. And share this with the people you care about.