Do you have trouble sticking to workout regimens? Maybe you start off strong for the first couple weeks, but then you start missing them here and there until, eventually, you realize there's a you-shaped cavern in your couch. You're in good company. But there's a tool that our own bodies produce that might just be the missing ingredient. In fact, it can literally make you addicted to your workouts.
Let's get amped about it.
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Let's start with the basics. Adrenaline is a hormone produced by your adrenal glands. That's plural. Many people think the adrenal gland (singular) is in your brain, but nope. You have two of them, one above each kidney. These glands secrete hormones into your bloodstream in response to stimuli, which, in adrenaline's case, is usually stress of one kind or another.
Medically, adrenaline is known by another name you're probably familiar with: Epinephrine. You know your friend with the nut-allergy who has to carry an epi-pen in case someone accidentally drops a PB&J sandwich on them? That pen is a little shot of adrenaline.
Adrenaline is commonly associated with out fight or flight reflex, and it's a big part of how humans have survived this long. When confronted with a dangerous situation, the adrenal glands release a blast of it into your bloodstream. This has several potentially life-saving benefits.
For starters, it dilates your blood vessels and air passages. Not only does the increased oxygen in your brain boost alertness, but the increased blood-flow (and hence, oxygen-flow) to your muscles essentially super-charges them, making them capable of increased physical performance for short bursts of time. So if you came across an angry baboon in the wild, an adrenaline boost will aid you in your attempt to battle him (fight) or flee (flight). But more practically for most of us, it can help push you through a tough part of your workout.
The release of adrenaline also has some significant side-effects that are important for our purposes. When your brain gets a hit of adrenaline, it releases endorphins, dopamine, and norepinephrine. Our friends at Psychology Today remind us that endorphins mitigate pain like opiates, norepinephrine closely mimics speed, and cocaine use simply triggers of flood of dopamine. In other words, adrenaline is kind of like a cocaine-speed-heroin cocktail, and, yes, just like those drugs, it can be highly addictive. As such, some caution must be exercised.
For starters, when you're beginning to drag in your workouts, a boost of adrenaline can be just the thing to get all of your cylinders firing the way you want them. Imagine you're nearing the end of a long jog and you're pretty spent—then suddenly there's an axe-murderer chasing after you. You'd suddenly find those deep energy reserves to run your ass off, wouldn't you? And because of that aforementioned drug-cocktail, you won't even feel your legs burning as much. You can trick your body into doing that without the need for a crazy-eyed maniac on your tail.
But, perhaps more importantly, we can use addictive properties of that drug-cocktail to our advantage. See, most of us are building up adrenaline all day in the form of stress. A horrible day at work, or a near traffic accident, or a fight with our significant other—these are all things that our bodies register as stress, which triggers the release of adrenaline. But then we don't do anything with it, because we continue sitting there in our office chairs or in our cars, and it doesn't get burned off. This is bad, for reasons we'll get into in the next section.
When we burn through the adrenaline during specific types of vigorous exercise, that's when the good stuff is released. Just as if you'd made it safely back to your cave having escaped your baboon frenemy, you are flooded with a sort of relief. The reward centers in your brain release the chemicals that beget feelings of euphoria and peace (assuming you're out of danger). Not only have you helped work off the stress of your day, but you get to enjoy the afterglow of that release.
The thing is, your brain wants more of that reward-center juice, and your brain is smart, so it starts putting together patterns in an "if this, then that" fashion. As in, "If my body works hard in these sudden bursts, then I get to release all these feel-good chemicals!" The more your brain associates these chemicals with vigorous exercise, the more appealing exercise will be. Even if you're dreading your evening workout, you're more likely to do it in order to get your fix.
The term "adrenaline junkie" isn't just a quaint term. Adrenaline is, quite literally, a drug, and it's one that can be abused, too. Yes, this is part of why people BASE jump off of crazier and crazier things. If fear is what gives you that adrenaline shot, and what you've been doing stops being scary, you need to look for something scarier, which is obviously not safe. Don't worry, though; there are ways around this.
The other thing you have to be careful of is building up adrenaline and not effectively using it. Unused adrenaline (and cortisol, which the adrenal gland also releases in response to stress) can keep you feeling agitated and stressed out, and there are a number of nasty side-effects to this. In an effort to get you out of the life-or-death situation your body thinks it's in, it will suppress many non-emergency bodily processes. Digestion is one of the first things it completely shuts down. It also puts your immune system on hold (this is how epipens work: the allergic reaction you're experiencing is your immune system going crazy over something). You'll find it's much harder to sleep, and you may continue to have an elevated heart-rate and blood pressure.
Not surprisingly, that is not healthy to sustain. This is why exercise—and the right kind of exercise—is critical to maintaining your health. Even if we'd never even consider an "extreme sport," we're likely to build up these unhealthy levels throughout our normal, boring, stressful workday.
Obviously, action sports are hugely popular and feature the best-known adrenaline junkies, but many are not practical for the purposes of attaining greater health. Skydiving, for instance, will certainly release a done of adrenaline—but then what? There isn't a whole lot of muscle involved in skydiving, so it's a lot of build-up, and it's certainly a rush, but you're not going to burn it off or get into better shape doing it (the calories you burn just from your heart pounding like crazy for a couple minutes don't really add up to much).
Instead, if you're into trying action sports, go for something more like snowboarding, mountain-biking, or surfing. Surfing is a great example, actually, because you paddle out (warm up), bob around in the line-up (low-energy), and then sprint like crazy to catch a wave (fight/flight). We're looking for sports that will have enough excitement to give you the initial adrenaline shot, but then also require enough high-intensity muscle work so that you build it off.
Don't just pick something because it scares you, though; pick something that looks like fun. Let the excitement be your motivation, and you'll barely notice you're exercising.
The first thing to remember is that adrenaline is to get you out of a hairy situation. Because of that, a long, slow jog isn't going to do a very good job at burning it off. We're looking for high-intensity bursts. Sound familiar?
Yep, interval training is an intimidating concept for a lot of us. Why? Because we know it's a lot harder than the slow-and-steady stuff we want to do. It is, however, vastly better for burning off stress and excess adrenaline (not to mention that you'll see more results, faster). At the end of an interval session, those reward systems will be kicking in, and you'll feel nicely blissed-out.
Virtually any form of interval training will work. If running or cycling is your thing, imagine that you are being chased by something or someone while you're in the work interval. You can apply it just as easily to weight training, if that's your thing (you're wrestling with a bear), swimming sprints, or, really, just about anything.
The important thing is to go slow at first. The adrenaline will allow you to push harder than perhaps you should. Remember that muscles take time to build, and tendons/ligaments take even longer (because they get a much lower supply of blood). Always, always, always build slowly.
You don't have to keep going bigger and more dangerous just to get your fix, nor should you. If you've stopped getting that buzz from doing the same activity, switch it up. Our brains fear the unknown, and trying something new—or trying the same thing in a new place—is often all it takes to give you that hyper-alert sense you're craving. Ski a new mountain. Bike somewhere else. Swim intervals instead of run. Do a spin class with your eyes closed and imagine you're biking through hell.
Boredom is the enemy, and there is almost always a free or cheap way around it. You just have to be creative. Adding the element of adrenaline to your workouts is to make them exciting again. It makes them fun, and it will make you want to come back. It's a lot easier to motivate yourself out of a lazy slump by doing something you enjoy.