Tiina Saanijoki wants to know which brain mechanisms make couch potatoes exercise

What happens in the brains of couch potatoes when they start to exercise? Research Pitching Competition 2019 finalist Tiina Saanijoki from the University of Turku wants to study the brain mechanisms behind physical activity.


Your research idea focuses on exploring the brain mechanisms of inactive people. Why do you want to peek into the brains of couch potatoes?

We already know quite well the psychological and environmental factors which push people to physical activity. For example, health and looks can motivate people to exercise. What we don’t know is what really happens in the brains of someone who becomes a enthusiastic about physical exercise. There is no existing research of exercise motivation on a molecular level, and that’s what I want to do: find out what happens in the brain when someone starts to exercise and creates a habit out of it. 

I think it’s interesting how so many people decide not to exercise even though we all know the benefits of physical activity. It is at least in part related to how exercise makes us feel. I want to understand the individual differences in brain reward mechanisms that facilitate or hamper regular exercise practice.

Where do you see this research topic in 20 years?

I hope that by then we would have a wider knowledge of the protective brain mechanisms and exercise, so that we could use that knowledge in medical treatment, for example with depression. I hope that in 20 years we would know what kind of depression patients benefit from exercise and how we could combine exercise and therapy more efficiently than today.

How do you feel about pitching?

Pitching intrigues me! In the academic  world you usually do things slowly and everything takes a lot of time because you need to dig deep into the topics you’re working with. At the same time we live in a world, where it’s necessary for you to squeeze information in a short form and present it convincingly. I think learning to pitch will be a very useful skill to have. I’m also thrilled to pitch basic research at Slush. I would assume it’s a place where applied research is more visible than basic research, while basic research is still the base of all research.

Tiina’s wild idea:

What are the brain mechanisms that stimulate physical exercise motivation? At present, we don’t know. Although the psychological and environmental factors of physical activity behavior are well-known, the actual brain mechanisms that drive regular exercise participation remain undiscovered. Therefore, the proposed project aims to reveal neuromolecular factors that drive exercise motivation and facilitate adoption of regular physical exercise. Many people experience physical exercise rewarding so that they actively pursue exercise, while others find it aversive and simply steer clear of it. Individual differences in brain’s reward system supporting reward processing, motivation, and emotions likely influence differences in physical activity engagement. In this project, we will recruit a group of inactive adults, who will undergo a six-month physical exercise intervention. We will use modern brain imaging techniques to study the function of their brain’s reward system before and after the intervention. We will couple this neuroimaging data with careful measurements of motivational aspects of exercise. With this approach, we believe we can reveal neural underpinnings that drive exercise motivation and psychological adaptation to exercise, which thereafter facilitate long-term exercise engagement. 

Do you want to know more about Tiina’s research idea? Get in touch with us: me@skolar.fi