Physical activity is one of the most effective ways to stay mentally healthy. Exercise has been shown to increase circulating levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), stimulating the growth of new neurons and facilitating learning and memory. Walking has been shown to improve creativity and a single bout of exercise can boost mood. Even a small amount of physical activity can significantly reduce the risk of developing depression. When we exercise we just feel better.
One of the hypotheses as to why exercise makes us feel good is that it releases endorphins which can cause feelings of wellbeing, elation, and euphoria. However, not everyone gets that “runner’s high” after a workout. How good or bad people respond to an exercise stimulus depends on many factors including their health, fitness level, and past experiences. Some researchers suggest that there shouldn’t be a universal exercise prescription and in order to maximize the psychological benefits, people should instead exercise at an intensity that “feels good”. This not only elicits significant physiological benefits, but it also makes it much more likely that people will continue to exercise. If exercise feels good, you’re more likely to come back to it!
There is also some exciting research that suggests that the types of movement we do can impact how we feel. When we’re happy, excited, and joyful, our body language reflects how we feel. We might lift our arms or jump in the air. But it also works the other way around. When we move our bodies in a certain way, we actually can change the way we think and feel. In fact, research has shown that happiness and positive emotional state can be improved simply through movement and dance. What’s more, even watching someone perform “happy movements” can make us feel happy and joyful. This is why exercising with a partner or group is so powerful!
Exercise doesn’t have to be running on the treadmill for an hour or counting down the minutes until your workout class is finished. Exercise can be playing with your kids in the park or meeting up with a friend to go for a bike ride. It’s time to stop thinking of exercise as work and to start thinking of it as just doing something that you enjoy.
The secret to getting more joy in your life is to move, and the secret to moving more is to do something that brings you joy.
Here are some ways to cultivate more joy into your life:
1. If you’re new to exercise (or new to the idea of exercising for fun!), brainstorm ideas for activities that you enjoy doing. What is it that brings you joy? What activities get you excited? Maybe there is an activity that you’ve always wanted to try or haven’t done since you were a kid. Make a list and then pick one to try out this week. If you already have a fitness routine, maybe you need to tweak it a bit to include some more activities that you look forward to doing.
2. Exercise with a friend. While exercise in itself can bring you joy, exercising with a friend or group can be even more powerful. Research has shown that doing fun activities with someone else elicits even more joy, especially when it’s with a friend.
3. Get into nature to experience awe. Awe is something we feel when we’re in the presence of something that seems greater than ourselves. Nature is a powerful way to elicit awe, and has been shown to improve measures of stress and wellbeing in military veterans, at-risk youth, and students. In a study of older adults, those participating in a weekly ‘awe walk’ exhibited lower stress and greater joy, compared to participants who were instructed to take regular walks.
4. Try the Joy Workout. Based on the latest research on “happy movements”, Dr. Kelly McGonigal has designed an 8-minute workout to bring about joy and happiness. In it, the instructor takes participants through six movements that have been scientifically proven to elicit joy.