In this episode of The Feel Good Effect, we’re talking about exercise with health psychologist & author, Dr. Kelly McGonigal.

Listen to the episode or read the article to learn how movement is directly connected to happiness and how you can use it to get more happiness in your life every single day!

3 minutes of exercise can redirect your brain toward happiness: here’s what to do

This is a re-air of a conversation that went live in early 2020, and so much has changed since then. I know some of you may be struggling to make exercise into a consistent habit, so I’m bringing this one back. Reframing your reason for working out might be just the thing that helps you feel more motivated.

“Movement is joy. And movement isn’t just about weight loss.”

Kelly McGonigal
meet guest & health psychologist: kelly mcgonigal

Kelly feels like The Joy of Movement is the book she’s been waiting to write for her whole life. Most people know Kelly as a psychologist who has published research and written books on topics like stress, compassion, and behavior change, but what most people don’t know is that she’s also been teaching group fitness since 2000. The best part of her professional and personal life has been teaching movement, everything from yoga to dance and strength to mixed martial arts.

It brings her so much joy and has allowed her to build a community in surprisingly meaningful ways. It has always been a fuel for her, yet it’s always seemed behind the scenes.

This book is Kelly coming out saying that this, teaching movement, is the most important thing that she does. It’s what she believes makes the biggest difference in the quality of people’s lives, to move in ways that provide a sense of meaning, mastery, and social connection. Teaching movement helps both Robyn and Kelly be better in other areas, whether that be writing, podcasting, or instructing. 

Kelly’s work isn’t just about how to like your workout more. It’s also about why & how movement can help us be our best selves and enjoy the parts of our humanity that many of us really desire more of in our lives.

“Movement will give you access to joy that will dramatically improve the quality of your life and help support mental health and meaning and belonging. It’s not a gimmick to get you to exercise so you and burn some calories. That’s not what it’s about.”

Kelly McGonigal
benefits beyond weight loss

It’s so engrained for people, that exercise = weight loss and that maintaining or changing your weight is the only reason to do it. But weight loss is not what Kelly is worried about.

The joys of movement are available to you no matter your size or your physical ability. Even in hospice care, it’s been shown that through the end of life, people are experiencing hope, connection, and meaning through movement.

But we know that across the board, people who are more physically active are:

  • Happier and have more life satisfaction
  • At a lower risk for things like depression and loneliness
  • Better able to cope with stress and anxiety
  • Have better relationships
  • Feel more of a sense of purpose and social connection

“Movement is the single best, most effective thing you can do for preventing and relieving depression.”

Kelly McGonigal
you can see these benefits from any type of physical activity

The literature for this is robust; it is a real effect and none of it is dependent on weight or weight loss. People who are sedentary and add movement to their lives enjoy more of these things, too. 

It doesn’t matter if you’re swimming, running, dancing, doing yoga, walking, or weight lifting– you see these benefits from any type of physical activity.

The standard definition of exercise: movement that is done for the sake of movement.

It’s not what you’re doing because you’re walking to work or the movement you do when you’re dancing at a celebration. Exercise is doing the movement, but not in service of anything else.

“There is something intrinsically valuable in being active.”

Kelly McGonigal
on what “counts” as exercise

Kelly shares two findings that will counter this idea that only certain things count as exercise:

1 | The Feel Better Effect

The feel better effect is the observation that if you have been inactive for any period of time and then you become active (for as little as three minutes) you immediately feel more energetic and more positive. No matter what level of energy or mood that you start with, exercise will help move you toward a more high-energy, positive state (emotions like hopeful, focused, enthusiastic, happy). It requires a basic state change: you are inactive, then you are active.

Kelly’s tip: put on a song you like and move for the duration of that song.

2 | Your muscles act like an endocrine organ

Recent research has found that our muscles manufacturer and secrete chemicals into the bloodstream that affect every system in the body, including the brain. You cannot access these chemicals unless you contract your muscles.

Every time you contract your muscles, these chemicals are secreted into your bloodstream and have effects such as killing cancer cells, reducing inflammation, helping control blood sugar, and having powerful effects on your brain. Some of these chemicals work as a fast-acting antidepressant. If your muscles contract, you are secreting these chemicals (called myokines), and it doesn’t matter how you contract them.

Movement is about moving your body, and everything else is a bonus. Myokines are also sometimes referred to as “hope molecules” because of the effect they have on the brain in helping people recover from stress, and even trauma. Kelly thinks about movement as an intravenous dose of hope.

You contract your muscles and secrete hope into your bloodstream. What could be better than that?

modifying movement in different seasons of life

By making exercise part of her daily routine and shifting her mindset, Robyn has completely changed her perspective from seeing exercise as a chore to thriving from it. It took a while for her to move from seeing it one way to seeing it as hope, connection, and courage. Robyn’s recent surgery prevented her from exercise, and it was devastating, because movement is now how she thrives. When people who are regularly active are unable to move in ways that they used to, there are actual psychological consequences. 

How am I going to sustain these joys and make movement a part of my life when it can’t look like it used to?

Kelly has experienced this twice before: once due to injury and once due to grief.

For some, just listening to the music they used to listen to gives them some of those same endorphins. The goal is to figure out a way to move so that you have a sense of being with yourself in a loving way, getting to explore aspects of yourself, to find ways to enjoy the body that you have, even when pain is present.

Questions to reflect on:

  • Would I still do this if it wasn’t going to lead to the external outcome?
  • What is the form of movement that inspires you? 
  • What’s the movement you loved as a child?

“A lot of the joys come from the paradox of experiencing pushing yourself to your own limits in a way that is safe and accessible.” 

Kelly McGonigal
movement might not always feel joyful in the moment.

There are forms of movement that you can pursue that will feel good while you’re doing it and you’ll feel good afterward, but a lot of the joys of movement transcend physical comfort.

A lot of the joys come from the paradox of experiencing pushing yourself to your own limits in a way that is safe and accessible.

If you push yourself so it’s less physically comfortable, you will get a bigger payoff later. The joys of movement go beyond feeling good in your body every moment. If you’re willing to tolerate some discomfort, often, the deeper joys become available to you.

on starting (or starting again)

You can set the intention, and infuse your exercise with loving-kindness. You can also find a community that will work against those instincts of shame and self-criticism. Exercise doesn’t have to be a do-it-yourself project, neither does self-compassion.

“You don’t ever need to tolerate being shamed; you don’t ever need to tolerate being excluded.”

Robyn Conley Downs
what does it really mean to be healthy?

“Being healthy means to sense yourself of having some use in the world that makes you feel good about being alive and we know that people who are able to do that, they actually are physically healthier and they have better mental health and they live longer.”

Kelly McGonigal
guest bio

Through her trademark blend of science and storytelling, bestselling author Kelly McGonigal goes beyond familiar arguments in favor of exercise, to illustrate why movement is integral to both our happiness and our humanity. Readers will learn what they can do in their own lives and communities to harness the power of movement to create happiness, meaning, and connection.

light blue background with blue text that reads exercise can redirect your brain toward happiness with kelly mcgonigal headshot

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The Joy of Movement

Connect with Kelly on Instagram @kellymariemcgonigal

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other feel good effect episodes you’ll love

How to Stop Overthinking Movement

Why You Need to Be Exercise Snacking

The Secret to Consistency & Joy in Your Workout Routine with Robin Long

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