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It’s certainly no secret by now that a sedentary lifestyle, where the most exercise you get is standing up out of your chair, can be deadly.
An average of six hours of TV watching per day can shave five years off your lifespan. On the other hand, if you do any sort of exercise on a daily basis, you are protecting your brainpower and preventing cognitive decline from stealing some of your best years.
Consistency is the key, not how strenuous the exercise. Even climbing the stairs in your house, if done with intent and good technique, can keep diabetes and heart disease at bay.
But staying active does much, much more than control blood pressure and prevent strokes and heart attacks.
How movement changes your brain for the better
In her 2019 book, The Joy of Movement, author and Stanford University health lecturer Dr. Kelly McGonigal writes about the profound but lesser-known results of staying active.
In an interview with National Public Radio, Dr. McGonigal said, “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.”
Without becoming a super-athlete, you can add hope, happiness, and a sense of purpose to your days. You can become more satisfied with your life overall.
And, you can forge rewarding connections with others, and avoid feeling lonely, which kills just as surely as a 15 cigarette a day habit.
What’s more, these benefits appear to cross socioeconomic and cultural lines. No matter where you live, says Dr. McGonigal, “these benefits are seen throughout the lifespan.”
Here, then, are five ways that movement can help you live a more emotionally rewarding life.
1. Moving activates pleasure
When we exercise, our brains release the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is essential for the normal function of our central nervous system and affects how we experience moods.
Exercise also releases endocannabinoids, chemicals that can generate a “natural high,” but that also helps regulate things like memory, pain and appetite, all factors in our moods and in how much pleasure we derive from our daily activities.
“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,” writes Dr. McGonigal.
2. Moving makes you a “more social version of yourself.”
During physical activity done in a group, whether it’s a yoga class, a run, or a dance session, our bodies release endorphins, a neurotransmitter that helps us bond to others.
Endorphins are why team members can feel like family, and why researchers at Oxford University found that combining physical exertion with synchronized movement increased subjects’ pain threshold (their tolerance for pain) more than solo dancing did.
3. Moving makes you less depressed
“Green exercise,” or exercising in nature, can reduce depressive symptoms.
In an Austrian study, mountain hiking was “prescribed” as part of treatment for people who had previously attempted suicide. This resulted in a measurable reduction in suicidal thinking and less reported feelings of hopelessness.
Dr. McGonigal cites this study in her book and says that she’s heard many similar stories among people she interviewed. “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.”
“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.”
4. Moving can reveal hidden strengths.
“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.”
5. Movement provides a “brain boost.”
Myokines are a family of proteins that are known to help the body burn fat as fuel, to act as natural antidepressants and to provide a possible shield against cognitive decline. Just one hour of bike riding will release 35 of these proteins.
Dr. McGonigal tells us that, when your muscles are exercised, they become “basically a pharmacy for your physical and mental health.”
“If you are willing to move,” she 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.”