It’s January 2nd, and gym parking lots everywhere are jammed. By January 20th, they’ll be half-empty; so why by mid-February have 80% of us abandoned our ‘get-fit’ New Year’s resolution? We don’t know how to use our brains.

Brains come equipped with a chemical reward system. It’s extremely complex; however, a simplified understanding is enough to manipulate the system and use it to our advantage. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter. With every positive stimulus, be it a hug, new shoes, a call from a friend, or a bite of chocolate, our brain produces a tiny hit of dopamine. A chemical pat-on-the-back, dopamine gives us a pick-me-up reinforcing the behaviour which just triggered its release.

Three years ago, my husband decided to get more exercise. He purchased a rowing machine, and like most home gym equipment for the first few weeks, it was well-used, then gradually less and less, until it became idle… so we did a little experiment. I purchased a bag of marbles and poured them all into one of two matching clear glass vases. I placed both vases side by side on a table directly at the top of the stairs where he automatically turned towards the kitchen which was associated with snacks that triggered a dopamine hit.

For every 5 minutes he rowed, he got to transfer one marble from the full jar to the reward jar. After a 15-minute row, he would take three marbles and drop them all into the jar creating a fulfilling ’DING’ sound. Very soon though, he started dropping the marbles in one at a time ‘ding, ding, ding.’ Already he had trained his brain to triple his dopamine reward. It did not take long before he unconsciously paused when passing the jar to admire the rising level of marbles, enough to trigger yet another chemical paton-the-back and further cement his good intention.

Now here is the really important part! Eventually the association of feeling strong, clear-headed and invigorated after rowing triggered yet another dopamine hit, and at that pivotal moment, the stimulus became the reward. His finishing touch was listening to a favourite podcast while exercising, and “ding,ding, ding, ding, ding…” he had created a self-sustaining reward cycle where the sheer joy of rowing was a sufficient reward for doing it.

All you need is a bag of marbles and two matching jars. The powerful ‘ding’ of the marble dropping into the jar is a simple and effective way to manipulate your brain’s chemistry to help you turn a New Year’s resolution into a positive lifestyle change.
The Great Brain Workout classes are sponsored by the Woolwich Senior Association and run at the Woolwich