Caffeine, exercise and the brain: How 'doping' with psychoactive drugs can boost motivation

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Tuesday February 7th, 2017

Let's be honest—exercise isn't easy. When compared with watching Netflix, checking Facebook or hitting up happy hour, working out is considerably more work. In fact, most of us don’t do enough—four out of five adults fail to meet minimum physical activity standards.

Since most already understand the benefits of exercise, researcher Samuele Marcora believes solving our inactivity is less about education, and more about how we perceive the effort of exercise. In an editorial published in the journal Sports Medicine, Marcora proposes that the root of the problem is humans—in part because of genetic factors encouraging sedentary behavior—don’t like to put in work.

“In my opinion, we have not paid enough attention to the main reason why most people do not regularly exercise: Humans do not like to exert effort,” Marcora says. “Motivated or not, if the pleasure of exercise isn’t high enough, people won’t do it.”

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To combat this, Marcora wants to make exercise feel better, by “doping” with psychoactive drugs, substances that target the brain and induce significant changes in mood and cognition. That's right, doping—the practice used by athletes to illicitly improve performance—should be used to get you up off the couch. Marcora believes that a safe, cheap and widely available psychoactive drug may reduce perception of effort during exercise: caffeine.

“Doping” with caffeine could make exercise feel easier, getting some people off their bums and into the gym. Other drugs, notably acetaminophen (Tylenol), have been investigated to decrease the discomfort of exercise and improve performance.

“Most people get a reduction in perception of effort, with no serious significant side effects, with 3 milligrams (of caffeine) per kilogram of body weight,” writes Marcora. For most, that is less than what’s found in a grande Starbucks coffee.

But why do we need drugs to encourage something so good for us?  Though factors such as technological conveniences have made skirting the recommended amount of physical activity all too easy, scientists now theorize that some of us are born wanting to run—and some aren’t.

A 2011 review study concluded that the inclination to exercise (or not) is, in part, influenced by your genes.

“Approximately 50% of the predisposition to exercise may be determined by our genes,” says Dr. J. Timothy Lightfoot, the author of the study and a genetics researcher at Texas A&M University.

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What is the evolutionary reason for “lazy genes”? Lightfoot believes that in early societies, activity above what was needed to provide food wouldn’t provide any benefit, perhaps making “extra” activity genetically undesirable. Lightfoot also cites research, in humans and animals, that suggests as food becomes more plentiful, there’s less of a biological drive for activity. Meaning that when a stuffed crust pizza is merely a phone call away, exercise suffers.

The link between genes and laziness isn’t license to ignore unfulfilled New Year’s resolutions, however. Caffeine is no newcomer to exercise enhancement and is a long-considered performance aid by those who exercise—to the point that it was banned by the World Anti-Doping Administration from 1984 to 2004. Athletes use caffeine because it works, delaying fatigue, upping alertness and increasing endurance performance by as much as 3%.

A study published last year in the journal Nutrients added to this already considerable body of evidence, again supporting caffeine as a performance enhancer. In the study, researchers first determined each subject’s maximum sustained pace during several 30-minute exercise tests. The subjects, eight active males, were then asked to cycle to exhaustion at that same “race-like” pace one hour after consuming caffeine or a placebo. The caffeinated subjects pedaled, on average, 23% longer than the placebo group.

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Observing the effectiveness of caffeine in improving endurance performance, a group of scientists decided to look at whether caffeine would have a similar effect on sports that have frequent stops and starts. The recently published research, focused on elite Brazilian jiu-jitsu athletes, revealed that pre-exercise use of caffeine increased muscular force, power, and endurance strength. Not surprisingly this led the researchers to conclude that caffeine could be a useful performance aid for jiu-jitsu athletes.

Now removed from the list of banned substances, caffeine has become one of the most commonly used legal drugs in sports, with 74% of elite athletes consuming it before and during national or international competition. The popularity of caffeine, combined with its effectiveness and lack of serious side effects, has created a market full of caffeine gels, goos and drinks that make it easier to chew or drink your way to improved performance.

So should we be worried that using caffeine before exercise is risky or irresponsible? Stacy Sims, a nutritional researcher and exercise physiologist at the University of Waikato in New Zealand, doesn’t think so.

“Caffeine has been used to improve exercise performance for decades; with plenty of scientific data to show that it reduces fatigue and gives a ‘lift’ during aerobic exercise,” she says. “It can also used, before exercise, to improve mood and perception, reducing some of the mental barriers to exercise."

In one such study, researchers asked sedentary subjects to perform two exercise trials—caffeine and placebo—during which they would pedal a stationary bike as hard as they could for 30 minutes. During the caffeine exercise trial, the subjects pedaled harder but didn’t feel like they expended any greater effort than the placebo exercise trial. The authors hypothesized that the use of caffeine, because it reduced the perceived effort of exercise, could motivate the sedentary to participate in exercise more often.

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Of course, when hearing that caffeine may lessen the pain of exercise, many may read this (from a comfortable perch on their couch) and think: I already drink coffee and I still don’t want to exercise. However, Marcora is clear that while he believes that caffeine’s effect is helpful, it’s mild in comparison to yet to be developed drugs. 

But like an athlete using steroids to run faster or jump higher, does using a drug as a “shortcut” cheapen the accomplishment, even if used for health reasons?  One commentary, published in Nature Neuroscience, raises the point that neuroenhancement, may be looked at as “gain without pain.” The article also raises the point that such drugs may raise our standard of normalcy, putting individuals that choose not to use the drug at a disadvantage. In the case of exercise, if caffeine and other drugs can be effectively used to increase activity, will individuals feel forced to partake?

Lightfoot said that while he wouldn’t have any objection to “doping” with caffeine or other drugs, as long as used to promote health, he does have one concern.

“How many would take the drug, even if it was available?” he says. “After all, caffeine is readily available, and we don’t use it.”

Because of ethical questions like these, Marcora isn’t sure his proposal will be well accepted in the health community. He also realizes that, while the use of caffeine to make exercise feel easier may not be objectionable, resistance to the use of more powerful drugs potentially on the horizon may be greater. 

“The concern over the use of performance boosting stimulants in athletes may slow down research on the use of these psychoactive drugs to help people become more physically active,” he says.

Many, even the most dedicated of exercisers, come up against a daily struggle between motivation and effort. When motivation is low and perceived effort high, the couch wins. So if a cup of tea or coffee can get you out and exercising, Marcora’s research suggests it’s worth a try.

5 ways to help you get your caffeine fix

Whether you prefer your coffee hot, as a shot, with steamed milk or over ice, there are many ways to prepare—and drink—the perfect cup of joe. We've rounded up a few of our favorite brews, beans, cups, makers and more, so you can have it the way you like it.

1. 8-Cup Bodum Chambord French Press, available at Cost Plus World Market, $39.99.

2. Wacaco Company MiniPresso GR Espresso Maker, available at amazon.com, $59.95.

3. Grady's Cold Brew Iced Coffee Kit, available at amazon.com, $23.74.

4. S’well insulated bottle, available at nordstrom.com, from $25.

5. Contigo AUTOSEAL Vacuum Insulated Stainless Steel Travel Mug, available at amazon.com, $15.99.

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