Rewire Your Brain for Change

If there was a horoscope designed specifically for the fitness world, January would be the month of inspiration and gym membership renewal. We all know that after New Year’s Day, gyms and wellness centers are packed with those of us who have resolved to get fit and healthy. Every class and piece of equipment is occupied by someone who has made a unique pledge, whether it’s to lose 30lbs or run a half marathon. But by April, half of these resolution-setters are nowhere to be found. Why is it so difficult for us to meet our goals? Why can't we just DECIDE to change and that’s it?

The bottom line is that some goals are just easier for our brains to accept, while others require a lot more rewiring and thought structuring to occur.

Research shows that taking a small, repetitive action toward making a change helps to imbed it in the mind. It’s like dragging your feet over the same spot on the ground repeatedly until you leave well-defined track marks. When you continue to practice a new habit or behavior, neuron or brain cell activity is actually altered. This is all thanks to our brain’s neuroplasticity, or the mind’s ability to reorganize information and form new associations, say leading neuropsychologists. The new learning patterns or connections that are formed are called neural pathways.

But, it’s not so cut and dry. Just like the rest of your body, your brain likes for everything to stay the same. Even though the brain is paving the way for us to change by producing new neural pathways, the mind is also retaining the memory of our old habit or behavior. So you could be totally committed to going to the gym before work, while part of you is still conscious of how insanely good it felt to sleep in that extra hour. The adult mind is wired for change, but we are also hardwired for it all to backfire, as old habits are never quite forgotten.

Fortunately, the mind is much less resistant to change when the choices we are making are associated with a reward-driven, goal-directed behavior. The reward can be easy to visualize: Look sexy! Having a vision of success is paramount, but after you think big, it’s time to take a step back and clarify your plan of action.

A goal that’s small and measurable, such as eating a side of vegetables at dinner for a week, is an easier sell to your mind than adhering to a strict vegetable-based diet for a whole year.

It’s not as limiting, you can see your progress, and the experience has a better chance of being a positive one.

For instance, if you actually start to enjoy your side of cumin carrots, this insight becomes a positive, learned experience that’s stored in the hippocampus of your brain. Any feeling that is significant enough to create a memory related to an event or goal is considered to be “salient”. Your brain tracks this response just so it can be recalled at a later date. That’s why remembering that it felt good to eat healthy can help you to do this goal-directed behavior again the following day.

Researchers call this cycle the motivation circuit. Your recollection of the experience releases dopamine, a feel-good hormone, into the prefrontal cortex of your brain, which is responsible for your working memory, attention, and risk-reward behavior. What really gets us to change is recognizing the benefit gained by taking action. The action is continually reinforced through repetition and this procedure eventually forms it into a habit.

It’s also a common experience to be fearful of change. When this happens, your brain signals a distress call and your mind instantly recognizes the emotion as fear. For example, you take an advanced, high-intensity spin class even though you’re relatively new to working out. After the class you think, “This is insane. I will never reach this fitness level and I’ve just made a complete fool of myself!” This reaction to the new stimuli is then stored in the region of your brain called the amygdala. Fear responses are learned, controlled and memorized, according to a study in Nature Neuroscience, but if the action you take is easy and realistic, you’re far less likely to succumb to your fears during the new learning process.

It may seem tough to break a habit or adopt a new behavior, but science supports that you can rewire your brain to make a positive, long-lasting change. The trick is to start small with a reasonable task and time frame.

Two weeks of fruit or nuts for a snack instead of processed foods. One week of going to the gym with a friend, consistently. If the sequence works, repeat it again. If it doesn’t, switch or tweak your goal until it sticks. Sure it’s hard work, but it’s also completely exhilarating to meet a personal goal.