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The Science Behind Motivation

By Supriya Venigalla, MD

Daily life is built on motivation.

You have the intention to wake up and brush your teeth, make a healthy breakfast, get dressed, and head to work. However, none of these can happen without action.

Action and motivation are actually linked to each other by a neurotransmitter – a hormone released in the brain – called dopamine.

Dopamine was always known as the brain’s reward and pleasure chemical. It was believed that it was released when we gained something pleasurable. But now, researchers are realizing this mighty hormone acts before that. It is released when it recognizes a reward and gives us the push to get there. It also spikes in times of stress, pain, or loss.

This busy little hormone was the subject of a study in 2012 at the Universitat Jaume I of Castellón in conjunction with the University of Connecticut. Rats with lower dopamine levels were reluctant to climb a small fence to get to a larger pile of food, compared to rats with higher levels of the neurotransmitter. This shows a strong link between dopamine and willingness to accomplish a task.

So how do you harness the power of this hormone to help you get active?

Positive reinforcement.

We’ve come up with five steps to get you on your way to physical fitness:

  1. Practice visualization every day. Remember what you want to achieve and why, then paint yourself in that picture! Passage of time and the level of difficulty of the activity can tend to diminish the reasons for being fit. Remembering and visualizing why you want to walk 30 minutes a day will help you stay on track and actually visualizing your walk can help you prepare.
  2. Commit to rewarding yourself. Once you reach a goal, schedule time to buy yourself a new book or set aside time to watch your favorite TV show. Much like Pavlov’s dogs, your brain will recognize and connect the reward with the behavior.
  3. Find a workout buddy. Mutual encouragement goes a long way in accomplishing goals.
  4. One tends to get tired by the end of the day. So create a strict routine around your workout and stick to it– the earlier the better.
  5. Record your progress on an external stimulator like Walk Georgia. A sense of accomplishment is key to maintain motivation.

A single but very powerful molecule can be your magic formula to regular physical activity. Just remember to set incremental goals. Enjoy the dopamine flow, Georgia!


  1. John D. Salamone, Mercè Correa. The Mysterious Motivational Functions of Mesolimbic Dopamine. Neuron, 2012; 76 (3): 470 DOI: 1016/j.neuron.2012.10.021
  2. Ikemoto, S., Yang, C., & Tan, A. (2015). Review: Basal ganglia circuit loops, dopamine and motivation: A review and enquiry. Behavioural Brain Research, 29017-31. doi:10.1016/j.bbr.2015.04.018