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The Joy of Movement

How Exercise helps us find Happiness, Hope, Connection, and Courage

By Kelly McGonigal
13-minute read
Audio available
The Joy of Movement by Kelly McGonigal

The Joy of Movement (2019) makes an inspired and highly original case for exercise. Drawing on the latest insights from biology, neuroscience, and evolutionary psychology, author Kelly McGonigal sets out to show us that the benefits of exercise go far beyond improving our physical health. With hard science and real-life anecdotes, she illustrates how movement brings us hope, meaning, and connection – and explains how everyone can harness its positive powers.

  • Couch potatoes looking for motivation to get moving
  • Gym rats, compulsive runners, and other exercise enthusiasts 
  • Philanthropists interested in human evolution, biology, and psychology

Kelly McGonigal is a research psychologist and award-winning science writer. Besides lecturing at Stanford University, she’s also a group exercise instructor in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her writing on neuroscience, psychology, and exercise has been published in twenty-eight languages, and her previous book, The Willpower Instinct, has become an international bestseller. 

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The Joy of Movement

How Exercise helps us find Happiness, Hope, Connection, and Courage

By Kelly McGonigal
  • Read in 13 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 8 key ideas
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The Joy of Movement by Kelly McGonigal
Synopsis

The Joy of Movement (2019) makes an inspired and highly original case for exercise. Drawing on the latest insights from biology, neuroscience, and evolutionary psychology, author Kelly McGonigal sets out to show us that the benefits of exercise go far beyond improving our physical health. With hard science and real-life anecdotes, she illustrates how movement brings us hope, meaning, and connection – and explains how everyone can harness its positive powers.

Key idea 1 of 8

The high we experience from physical exertion is an ancient mechanism helping us persist, thrive, and socialize. 

As early as 1885, Scottish philosopher Alexander Bain described what we now call the “runner’s high”: the feeling of bliss and elation that sets in after a prolonged period of jogging. Bain likened this high to a spiritual experience, but others have compared it to being in love, and the effects of all kinds of mind-altering drugs.

Curiously, from a neurological standpoint, the drug that the runner’s high comes closest to is cannabis. Recent studies have shown that a long run greatly increases levels of endocannabinoids in our brain. These are a class of chemicals, and cannabis mimics the effects of them on the brain. Endocannabinoids are known for lessening pain, boosting mood, and triggering additional feel-good chemicals and neurotransmitters such as dopamine and endorphins.

Endocannabinoids also help protect us against anxiety and depression. The weight-loss drug Rimonabant, for example, was designed to suppress appetite by blocking endocannabinoid receptors. Instead, it brought about dramatic increases in anxiety and depression in clinical trials, even leading to four suicides, and was permanently banned. Conversely, one recent study showed that just 30 minutes of exercise can make people immune to the severe anxiety induced by the drug CCK-4. In this study, the effect of exercise was equivalent to taking a sedative like Ativan. 

And that’s not all: endocannabinoids also make us more social. In one experiment conducted by researchers at the Sapienza University of Rome, people who exercised for 30 minutes before playing a social game were much more generous and cooperative than people who didn’t. Initiatives like GoodGym in London harness the social energy generated by physical activity: they organize communal runs that send volunteers to do all sorts of social projects in their communities, such as visiting socially isolated elderly people. 

Luckily for those of us who’d rather eat a broom than run a lap around the block, the runner’s high is not confined to running. It is proven to appear after all kinds of moderately exhausting physical activity that takes more than 20 minutes, whether that’s swimming, cycling, or speed-walking. Thus, the explosion of brain chemicals from prolonged exercise might be more accurately called a “persistence high.”Why would our brains make us feel so good about exhausting our bodies? The latest theory traces this phenomenon back to our earliest ancestors. It’s likely that the persistence high evolved to keep us hunting and gathering for longer periods of time, making us more likely to find food and survive. And the increased willingness to cooperate and share after physical exertion could also have had an evolutionary benefit: it made hunters more likely to share their spoils with the tribe.

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