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Can You Make Movement More Joyful?

Interview with Kelly McGonigal

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Are you struggling to keep up with the number of steps you need to get each day to stay healthy?  Are you dragging yourself out of bed each morning to run or cycle?  Are you finding it hard to maintain your motivation to lift heavy weights, do more sit-ups, or complete your yoga routine?  Do you need to find ways to bring joy back into getting enough daily physical movement?

“People who are physically active tend to be happier and more satisfied with their lives,” explained Dr. Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University, when we interviewed her recently on the Making Positive Psychology Work Podcast.  “Exercise doesn’t just release feel-good endorphins, but also many other brain chemicals, including those that give you energy and protect you against depression, anxiety, and loneliness.  In addition, being regularly active can remodel your brain, so you’re more receptive to joy and social connection, and experience a stronger sense of purpose, gratitude, love, and hope.”

“Unfortunately, people often give up on exercise, not because it’s too hard, but because it’s not meaningful,” said Kelly.  “Psychologically, the stories you tell yourself about why engaging in movement is meaningful to you are important.  When you understand that movement can be a metaphor for other things in your life, it can help you recognize your own strengths and reimagine what’s possible.  For example, you might be someone who persists, or who has grace and beauty.” 

“In addition, the social connections you can form with others through movement communities such as a running group, a dance class, or a recreational sports team, can give you a sense of belonging, sometimes with others of very different ages and backgrounds,” explained Kelly.  For example, GoodGym running and walking groups exercise together to reach a community site where they make beds, prepare meals for the homeless, sort donations, or volunteer their time for other community projects.

Best of all, Kelly noted that studies have found that the benefits of exercise and the joys of movement are not limited to only those who are physically fit.  If you have a serious physical disability, experience chronic pain or hospice care, have serious mental health issues, or struggle with weight, size, or fitness level, you can still experience the gains from moving your body in ways that are meaningful to you in the communities that you care about.

So, what can you try to make your daily need for movement more joyful?

Kelly suggests trying the following:

  • Be sufficiently active – While a small activity such as stretch break can help you feel better in the short term, if you want to change the structure of your brain, you need to do a little more than that.  Do something that gets the heart rate up and requires persistence or endurance, so you get to the point where some part of you wants to stop, and you choose not to stop.  To be sufficient, it also needs to be ongoing, so avoid one-off exercise experiences.  
  • Make it meaningful – Consider how you can define yourself through the activity; it might be recognizing your strengths, your playfulness, your grace, or your courage because you’re doing something that challenges you.  It’s important to track your progress at getting better, and to document and celebrate your mastery.  For example, if you’re creating a program, add an event at the end to celebrate what people have done and the community that’s been formed.  Make it more meaningful by making it a charity event that raises funds for a cause.
  • Provide opportunities to connect – Moving together with others can enhance all of the intrinsic benefits of exercise.  Choose a movement experience that gives people a chance to socialize with others and feel cared for.  For example, a walking group can be a great way to strengthen relationships in work settings.  When you’re in a walking group, you get to talk to your co-workers in a way that you might not feel free to do around the water cooler or in a workplace meeting.  Research indicates that because of the minimal eye contact that happens when people walk together, they’re more willing to discuss conflict in a calm and peaceful way and to disclose things that would feel more vulnerable in a different setting. 

How can you make movement more meaningful?

To discover more evidence-based practices for helping people to thrive at work, check out the Making Positive Psychology Work Podcast.

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