How does exercise help us? Physically, mentally, socially, or spiritually?
Updated: Jun 8, 2020
The Joy of Movement: How Exercise Helps Us Find Happiness, Hope, Connection, and Courage by Kelly McGonigal, 2019
Four of five stars ****
For many, exercise is seen as a chore and a burden. For others, it's seen as a necessity and a lifesaver. If there was a pill that provided most of the physical benefits of exercise, would we take it? The author looks at this and other questions about how our bodies are wired by evolution to move, and how we need to keep moving them for physical, mental, and spiritual well-being.
Kelly McGonigal is a research psychologist at Stanford and former yoga, dance and exercise teacher. She uses both her personal experiences with exercise and scientific research to point at some of the best benefits that our bodies can provide for us.
Have you ever wondered why runners are so committed to running, going out in all sorts of weather and punishing their bodies with marathons and ultra-marathons? There is an evolutionary reward to running and other aerobic activities, known as the runner's high. After reaching the magic 20 minute threshold the body reduces endocannabinoids, natural chemicals that reduce anxiety and encourage confidence and bonding. It's our body's way of rewarding us for putting in the efforts that will help us survive.
While addictive drugs like heroin and opioids give sudden highs, over the long term they actually reduce the brain's ability to experience pleasure. Exercise, on the other hand, increases our ability to experience lasting joy and happiness. Exercise can be a healthy addiction, leaving long-lasting effects that include better mood and mental health as well as stronger bodies.
The author spends an entire chapter examining something called collective joy, where moving in unison with other people produces both joy and connection. By synchronizing our movements with those of others, such as in dance, group exercise, or marching, we transcend our personal problems and unite with a stronger collective. Moving together as one brings not only a feeling of belonging, but it also inspires us to work harder and push harder. This is the theory behind aerobics classes, Pelaton bikes, and even charity walks and 5K runs. Coming together for a greater goal moves both our minds and bodies. The more bizarre story I heard from this book was about something called the Joggobot, which is a drone that follows you while you run, so that you don't feel alone in your journey.
Music is essential to many pro athletes to inspire them into the top levels of training. Our brains are wired to move when the beat of music is all around. (Just try not tapping your toes when listening to dance tunes.) Many athletes have specialized playlists for training, and if you've ever watched professional figure skating you've seen what the right song can produce in the right athlete. I learned that Eminem's song, Till I Collapse is one of the top exercise songs in the world, so now I will be looking to expand my own playlist.
The Joy of Movement spends an entire chapter looking at exercising in nature, which I much prefer to working out in gyms. We have something called a "default brain mode" where our brains turn mostly inward, thinking about ourselves, our past, and our problems. Meditation is one pathway out of that default, but so is "green exercise". By running, walking, cycling, or rowing in nature, we are able to go beyond the default mode and experience spiritual, hopeful and elevated experiences. We are less focused on our own worries and more present-focused and mindful. The popular hobby of gardening is another great way for people to get in touch with nature while moving their bodies, and it doesn't require the exertion that running entails.
McGonigal spend a lot of time with ultra-endurance athletes, which is something that I've never aspired to. There needs to be a balance between exercise fanaticism and the rest of life- work, family, and relaxation. Still the stories in the book of people who set goals for themselves and then work hard to achieve them are inspiring., especially for the people who are handicapped. People need hope, and challenging one's body is a great way to find it. Improving your fitness and finding a close family of fellow runners, dancers, or gardeners gives us something to do, someone to share it with, and a reason to live.
I love to exercise and I credit my passion for cycling with my general health at age 61. I hadn't considered some of the other benefits to moving your body that are covered in this book, and it gave me plenty of food for thought. Feeling lonely? Exercise with other people. Feeling depressed and self-absorbed? Go for a walk in nature. Feeling hopeless? Set a goal for your body and go for it, preferably with help.
As I write this, the COVID-19 epidemic is raging all around me and much of the country is shut down, anxious, and worried. For my own sanity, I intend to make time to get outside and move my body, waving to others from an appropriate distance.
This is a great book to read for those who exercise regularly and for those who wish they could do more.