Most of us add “regular fitness/exercise” to our New Year’s resolutions but most of us stop acting on said resolutions before the first month of the year is over. A big reason for that is that we don’t think much about the many different benefits of regular exercise and we just know “It’s good for us” and that’s it.
If, however, we focus our attention not so much on the activity itself but on the many benefits we get from it, our chances of solidifying it as a long-term habit increases. That’s the conclusion of author and health psychologist Kelly McGonigal and she lays it out in detail in her new book The Joy of Movement: How Exercise Helps Us Find Happiness, Hope, Connection, and Courage (1).
Kelly McGonigal is a Stanford University lecturer and she puts her years of experience in listing some of the lesser-known but vital benefits of regular exercise.
“I want them to understand [exercise] in a different way than the usual conversation we always have about weight loss, preventing disease and making our bodies look a certain way,” McGonigal told NPR (2). “These benefits are seen throughout the life span. They apply to every socioeconomic strata and appear to be culturally universal.”
The benefits she lists aren’t so much the direct results of the particular exercise – burning fat, building muscle mass, etc. – but are the additional side-benefits that come from exercise and that are less talked about but just as important. So, what are these five main benefits?
1. Get a Natural “High”
Neurotransmitters such as dopamine and endocannabinoids are released by our brains during more intense physical workouts which create a natural “high” effect that’s very similar to that of cannabis or marijuana. As long as the exercise is intensive enough to cause the release of neurotransmitters, you’ll draw a lot of pleasure from it.
“Many of the effects of cannabis are consistent with descriptions of exercise-induced highs, including the sudden disappearance of worries or stress, a reduction in pain, the slowing of time and a heightening of the senses,” Kelly McGonigal writes.
Another type of neurotransmitters released during heavy exercise is endorphins. These neurotransmitters work by helping us bond with others more naturally and easily. That, together with the fact that most types of exercise are usually done with others, whether it’s in the gym, at a yoga studio or in the swimming pool, any regular exercise can become an easy and effective way to create and solidify social connections.
“But there’s something about getting your heart rate up a little bit and using your muscles that creates that brain state that makes you more willing to trust others — that enhances the pleasure you get from interacting with others that often makes you this more social version of yourself,” she says.
3. Dealing with depression
In the “Green exercise” section of her book, McGonigal talks about how our mood and outlook on life changes when we exercise in nature (3).
“It actually alters what’s happening in your brain in a way that looks really similar to meditation,” she says. “People report feeling connected to all of life … and they feel more hopeful about life itself.”
She also cites an Austrian study that showed that people who have attempted suicide in the past feel and live much better when they take up an activity such as mountain climbing (4).
“So many people who struggle with anxiety, grief or depression find a kind of relief in being active in nature that they don’t find any other way.”
4. Improving our brains
McGonigal also explorers a lot of research done on ultra-endurance athletes and how they manage to mentally deal with long-lasting grueling activities. She looks into the work of researchers at the Berlin-based Center for Space Medicine and Extreme Environments who’ve discovered a family of proteins called “myokines” which not only act as natural anti-depressants but also help slow cognitive decline.
McGonigal notes, however, that we don’t need to be power athletes to benefit from these proteins. Any relatively intensive physical exercise tends to have a similar effect and boosts all sorts of myokines and other hormones and proteins in our bodies.
“If you are willing to move,” McGonigal writes, “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.”
5. Discovering more about ourselves
Even if you don’t think you need any of the benefits above, another wonderful effect of regular exercise is that it reveals a lot of strengths, skills, and abilities we never knew we had.
“If there is a voice in your head saying, ‘You’re too old, too awkward, too big, too broken, too weak,’ physical sensations from movement can provide a compelling counterargument,” McGonigal writes. “Even deeply held beliefs about ourselves can be challenged by direct, physical experiences, as new sensations overtake old memories and stories.”