I am in no way, shape, or form a specimen of great health or physical fitness, but I will say that I try to go to the gym most days just so I can get my heart rate up and those endorphins flooding my brain. If I do, I just feel better about everything – I get more work done, I’m in a way better mood, and I sleep better, too.
It turns out there are a lot of hidden benefits to exercising regularly, as health psychologist and author Kelly McGonigal expounds upon in her new book: The Joy of Movement: How Exercise Helps Us Find Happiness, Hope, Connection, and Courage. McGonigal argues that there are a lot of great things that come out of exercising besides trying to look better and losing weight – those things can be important goals, of course, but there’s a lot more to it than that.
Regular exercise can literally give us hope and a sense of purpose. It makes us happier and gives us greater overall satisfaction in life. And this applies to all kinds of exercise: jogging, swimming, yoga, biking, lifting weights, whatever.
McGonigal says, “These benefits are seen throughout the life span. They apply to every socioeconomic strata and appear to be culturally universal.”
Here are some of the specifics that McGonigal talks about:
1. Exercise gives us a natural high when our brains release the neurotransmitters dopamine and endocannabinoids. This high can feel similar to the effects of smoking marijuana.
2. The endorphins that flow during exercise help us feel bonded to other people, whether you’re running with someone or doing a group exercise class. You can be a more social version of yourself.
3. Regular exercise can help you fight depression. McGonigal says, “It actually alters what’s happening in your brain in a way that looks really similar to meditation. People report feeling connected to all of life … and they feel more hopeful about life itself.”
4. A big brain boost is in order when you start moving. “If you are willing to move, your muscles will give you hope. Your brain will orchestrate pleasure. And your entire physiology will adjust to help you find the energy, purpose and courage you need to keep going.”
It’s a new year, so get out there and get yourself in shape! Or at least get moving a little.
Your body and your mind will thank you for it.