Dr. Caroline Leaf – We all know that exercise is good for us, but did you know that movement changes us from the inside out, improving both our mental and physical health?
In this week’s blog and podcast, I discuss the power of movement with bestselling author, research psychologist and lecturer at Stanford Dr. Kelly Mcgonigal, and how exercise can help defeat depression, anxiety, loneliness and shame, making us feel more connected with ourselves and with others.
Kelly has always loved exercise and movement. As someone who is prone to anxiety, she discovered from young that different types of movement could help her control and process her thoughts and feelings, and wanted to explore her love of exercise in her new book, The Joy of Movement.
Too often, we think of exercise as a kind of chore or task. Like eating well, it is something we need to do to stay healthy. It can be hard and intense, but it is well worth the struggle, right? But movement is so much more than that! As Kelly says, movement can be a beautiful, pleasurable and fun experience, and is a profound way to support our mental and physical wellbeing.
In fact, there is no rulebook when it comes to exercise. All movement is good movement, and we need to find out what works for us, even if it doesn’t make you feel out of breath. We are all different, and we all have different desires, capabilities and needs. Movement that gets the heart rate going and helps us feel more engaged in life is a way to celebrate and enjoy, not deny and despise, this diversity. The mental and physical benefits of exercise is not limited to the young and able-bodied. Regular movement is wonderful for people of all ages and with all sorts of mental and physical abilities, and can be incorporated into every area of our lives, whether we skip around the house, dance up and down the stairs or have fun crawling from room to room with our loved ones.
And, when we look at the data, people who are more physically active are happier, have more meaningful lives, have better relationships, experience more positive emotions and deal with depression and anxiety better! Every time we move our body, we are giving ourselves a dose of happiness and health and are investing in our mental health. Movement is not a chore; it is a way of expressing our strength and vitality as living, breathing beings.
Exercise is actually the only thing, besides deep brain stimulation, that enhances the brain’s ability to experience pleasure. Regular movement sensitizes the brain to pleasure and joy—physical activity enhances our reward system, which motivates us, telling us when something is good and that there is hope for the future. Through movement, we are better able to develop stay motivated in every area of our lives, as our reward system is more robust and works better. Essentially, physical activity makes us more resilient; it doesn’t just give us a quick dopamine rush and then that is it. Physical activity trains the brain to enjoy all the good things in life, such as a long walk in the park, a meal with friends or a beautiful sunset!
Movement also helps us connect with others and form deep meaningful relationships. When we exercise, brain chemicals that support social connection (like oxytocin) are released, which helps us trust other people more, giving us that warm glow we get from being around our loved ones. Essentially, movement resets the brain, helping us be nicer people and enhancing our social pleasure, especially in a group workout setting where there is a sense of collective joy and encouragement.
Indeed, group movement helps us trust each other more, and is a great way to strengthen relationships. Studies have shown that just walking shoulder-to-shoulder with someone helps us be more open and vulnerable with that person, allowing for a certain degree of intimacy, which may be very helpful for people going through challenges at work, school or at home.
Physical activity is also a great way to deal with toxic stress and negative body-image. By focusing on the task of moving your body in a certain way, you can calm the inner chatter of the mind and slow the rush of chaotic thoughts, which is why some people use exercise as a form of meditation. Different forms of exercise can also meet our different needs when it comes dealing with toxic stress. Kelly recommends thinking of the opposites of toxic stress and anxiety, such as courage, freedom, calm, hope, social connection, playfulness and so on, and then focus on what kind of movement you need in the moment. Think about your particular antidote. For example, if you feel like you need to feel brave and strong in the face of a challenge, then you may want to go to a high-intensity workout class like cardio-kickboxing, which makes you feel fierce and courageous and helps you deal with your fears and anxieties. Be willing to take chances and explore different types of exercise for your needs!
The same can be said for our self-confidence and body-image. Instead of focusing on what you look like in the mirror or what other people think of you, you can turn your attention to what you are physically doing with your body—your own strength and grace—and find a totally new way to think about yourself. As you do this, you will find qualities that you admire in yourself and want to express outwardly. This is especially the case when you find the right movement community, which makes you feel welcomed and encouraged, where people see your beauty and you see beauty in others, and where you share a common humanity.
This group setting can be especially helpful if you have imposter syndrome, or the feeling that that you are a fake, and do not deserve the position you are in and/or the praise you receive. Through positive group movement, you can start gaining confidence in yourself, which can help you develop a growth mindset: instead of just thinking you are a fake, you start thinking “I can grow into this role. When I put in the effort and energy I can become what I want to become.” Indeed, movement communities are intrinsically interdependent: they enable us to be vulnerable, open, and honest, teaching us how to seek help, and how to help and encourage others.
Of course, we are continually learning about the power of movement. We now know that our muscles serve a function beyond moving bones; they act as a kind of endocrine system, storing chemicals and proteins that release into the blood stream when we move (through continuous contractions), which can reduce inflammation, control blood sugar, boost metabolism and so on, making us feel healthy and happy. Some of these molecules have the strongest effects on the brain, immediately reducing feelings of depression and boosting our motivation, while, in the long term, restructuring the brain to make you more resilient to stress and help recover from trauma and mental distress. These positive mental effects are why some scientists call these chemical “hope molecules”, as they inspire and encourage us to embrace life. Indeed, the more we study movement, the more we learn how hope is one the most common emotional side-effects of exercise!
We also know now that lactic acid is not just a bad by-product of movement. The latest research suggests it travels to brain and works just like the “hope molecules” discussed above, and has anti-depressant and anti-anxiety effects on the brain, while we are only just learning how exercise positively effects the gut microbiome, and how exercise can help protect us from and heal cognitive decline. Movement really is incredible! Your whole body thrives on physical activity, which is why you cannot replace exercise with a pill or molecule.
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