Kelly McGonigal says to use the latest research on movement to bring more delight into your life.
How do you find a path out of depression, an antidote for anxiety, and a solution for social isolation? If any drug company or supplement manufacturer claimed to have the answers, you would roll your eyes. However, health psychologist Kelly McGonigal says digging out of a variety of physical, emotional, and social ailments is possible with just a little extra effort—or a little extra movement, to be more exact.
In her new book, The Joy of Movement, McGonigal explores from a scientific perspective how movement creates profound positive changes in the brain.
“When I think about the science of exercise, I always think about the immediate effects on your mood, mindset, and your brain—your biochemistry,” she says. “But I also think about how regular exercise changes the structure and function of your brain in the long-term.”
While the short-term effects provides good news, the long-term effects may be even more beneficial, according to McGonigal. She says movement is intertwined with our humanity; our evolution has relied on movement to influence how we interact with each other and with our environment. “Movement amplifies everything that humans naturally take joy in: community, teamwork, mastery, and music. Movement enhances all of them,” she says.
McGonigal explains that movement is joined with our capacity for joy. She says we can look to runners to understand how movement and exercise amplify what we naturally delight in.
“I don’t run, but people in my life love running and they have the best stories,” she says. “People are able to make metaphors out of running. There’s something about it: You keep going, you’re moving forward, you’re putting one foot in front of the other. Runners easily understand their running as a metaphor for their personal strengths and their journey.”
The question, as McGonigal explains, becomes, “How can we do that in yoga, rowing, swimming, and dancing? How do we see and understand what we’re doing as an illustration of who we are becoming and what matters most to us? The activity or sport you connect with can become a metaphor for your life.”
McGonigal knows from teaching group fitness classes that moving as a group can create a special kind of bond. She experiences it as a teacher connecting with her students and sees her students connect with each other as well. What McGonigal has found, both anecdotally and through her research, is that “the joy of movement is actually the joy of connection.” She explains, “Everyone I talked to kept bringing it back to the social component, the social support they found through movement. I didn’t realize how tied into the neurophysiology of exercise it was.”
One of her most exciting findings is that “movement primes our brain for social connection,” she says. “You can extend this to depression and grief, or anywhere you have these competing instincts to withdraw or hide your suffering from others versus leaning into our interdependence.”
You don’t have to participate in group exercise to get the social benefits of movement. Exercising solo produces the same changes in your brain chemistry that make you more likely to connect with others—whether they are co-workers, family members, or people in line behind you at the grocery store.
“I feel like many forms of exercise teach us how not to suffer alone. And I believe that’s true even if you exercise alone, because ultimately it changes your neurochemistry,” McGonigal says.
People who suffer from anxiety sometimes believe that they should try calming varieties of movement. “They think they should go for the movement form that feels like a cocoon.”
McGonigal herself spent years trying to use restorative yoga to manage her anxiety. She explains that while it can help, “It doesn’t work the same way that activating forms of exercise do. When you’re feeling anxious, you actually want to use that energy and transform it to become courageous and brave.”
Though McGonigal experiences anxiety when traveling on a plane, she has found a way to keep it at bay. “Before I got on a plane today, I did a 30-minute cardio kickboxing rou- tine because I feel fierce when I’m kicking and punching,” she says. “I know that it has a biological and psychological effect.”
Using that nervous energy and transforming it can have a long-lasting effect on your brain chemistry. When movement primes your brain to be social, hopeful, or brave, you are training it to adapt to a new reality.
McGonigal is not a morning person. “It takes five alarms, coffee, my husband yelling at me, and my cat sitting on my chest before I get out of bed,” she says. “But I will exercise first thing in the morning because it helps me deal with my anxiety. If I don’t, my natural temperament controls me— exercise makes me braver.”
She only know this because she has paid attention. Often there’s what McGonigal calls a “joy gap.” She explains, “When we think something is good for us, we underestimate how much joy it will bring us. We underestimate the pleasure and satisfaction we think we will get out of it.”
McGonigal urges people to “name their joy.” When looking for a movement form to bring joy, people should “think about the best feeling they had during or after [the movement], and write it down, take a selfie, or even record an audio memo if they feel like their voice has joy or excitement in it.” The goal is to capture that feeling as a way of gathering information. “It helps us form a memory that will help us to do it again.”
“Take a selfie,” McGonigal says, “and send it to yourself with a note, ‘I am so grateful you made time for this today. Look at how amazing you look.’”
There will be movement you don’t enjoy, and that’s useful information to have as well. “Not everything you try is going to make you feel loved and powerful but look for that afterglow that can pull you forward. Make decisions based on that,” she suggests.
“What I say to people who say they don’t like movement is that they haven’t found the right movement yet,” she says. “I don’t believe that there are non-responders to the
joy of movement, even though I know there are non- responders to individual kinds of movement.”
McGonigal says she hates to run and won’t force herself to suffer through it. But she was lucky to find early on that group fitness appealed to her.
For those who abhor exercise, the key to finding the movement that fosters joy is to ask: “What do I already love to do?” Consider Rufftail Runners, an Austin, Texas-based organization that pairs volunteers with shelter dogs they take on walks or runs. “Imagine you love animals and you love animal rescue,” explains McGonigal, who is also a vocal advocate for rescue animals. “You think you don’t love exercise, but how amazing would it feel to go to a shelter and take a dog who lives in a cage outside for a walk? Imagine the joy that the dog gets from being outdoors and active.”
“Trust that any movement form is going to be good for your health,” McGonigal says. “It’s not like there’s a movement that’s not going to be good for you. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing; if your muscles are engaged, then you’re doing something amazing for your brain and body.”
ON CHRONIC PAIN
McGonigal lives with chronic pain, so she understands how movement can feel daunting for those dealing with those same issues. Her first book, Yoga for Pain Relief, suggested using yoga to cope with chronic pain. She insists that you don’t have to do anything difficult or exhausting to access the joy of movement.
“The trick is to start with what feels aspirational and what can bring you some pleasure while you’re doing it, even if there is some physical challenge related to it,” she says. Many people with chronic pain worry that anything strenuous will deplete their energy. But McGonigal insists, “Exercise is different; it can deplete your energy while ultimately giving you more energy.”
She suggests that you play detective to find the right type and level of movement. Pay attention to how you feel during the movement, immediately after, and the next day, she advises.
“The research is clear: For every form of chronic pain or illness, movement enhances energy, reduces pain, and improves quality of life. It’s just a matter of having the right mindset: You’re doing this because you care about yourself,” McGonigal says. “You’re following joy. You’re not punishing yourself and you’re not trying to fix your body. If you go in with that mindset, there’s really nothing different about it than any other limitation a person might have, be it physical or structural.”
Furthermore, she explains that exercise is often used in hospice care. Even when there is no hope of getting better or stronger, “People report that being able to use their bodies in a way that is difficult feels good. It’s how they know they are alive and they will do it until the end of their lives.”
McGonigal maintains that intensity is not about getting into a certain target heart rate. It’s about choosing to use your body, “choosing to express your strength, to challenge yourself, to grow, to experience the endorphin rush that comes when you get your heart rate up. It’s about feeling alive and discovering for yourself what you are capable of; redefining what you thought was possible for you.”
She doesn’t own a wearable fitness tracker and doesn’t believe they have a place in the joy of movement. Focus on how you’re feeling in your body, not on a device. You need to know if the movement is hard for you, and you need to know if you feel alive. “The intensity comes from redefining what’s possible, it comes from the endorphin rush, and it comes from really feeling alive,” McGonigal says.
Intensity does amplify all of the neurochemical effects, and yes, it is about getting your heart rate up a bit higher, breathing a little harder. But it should always be looked at in the context of joy. She suggests incorporating the most difficult movement you can enjoy into your routine.
“Intensity as I see it is defined by and going just a little bit further so that you have to breathe harder—that’s it.”
RELEASE YOUR HOPE MOLECULES
You can experience a runner’s high, often described as a feeling of euphoria, by doing all types of exercise—not just running. McGonigal found that brain chemistry sparked by the runner’s high is found through maintaining a moderate pace of exercise for at least 20 minutes and is better described as a persistence high.
Endorphins are the hormones that get the most credit for producing the runner’s high, but McGonigal also cites endocannabinoids, which have an effect similar to cannabis; oxytocin, which floods a woman’s body in high doses after childbirth; and lactic acid as all playing a part in creating a sense of euphoria.
Movement also results in your muscles pumping out a class of proteins called myokines. These proteins were found by studying ultrarunners and trying to understand how they kept going even when the going got very, very rough. You don’t have to be an endurance athlete to benefit from these molecules. Any movement, any contraction of your muscles, results in the release of myokines.
McGonigal says that exercise-induced myokines are also called “hope molecules,” a name inspired by ultra-endurance athletes who talked about the metaphor of putting one foot in front of the other. “The existence of hope molecules reveals that this is not merely a metaphor—hope can begin in your muscles,” McGonigal says. “The same muscles that propel your body forward also send proteins to your brain that stimulate the neurochemistry of resilience.”
Your Entry to the Joy of Movement
Ask yourself these questions to find your way in:
- What do you love to do? Who do you love?
- Where do you love being?
- What kind of community do you want?
- Where does that community exist?
- Who do you want to become?
- What would impress yourself if you could do it?
McGonigal insists there is no training protocol, “no one path or prescription except to follow your own joy.” If you’re looking for a guideline, try this: Move, any kind, any amount, and any way that makes you happy.