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in: Fitness, Health & Sports, Podcast

• Last updated: September 8, 2020

Podcast #589: How Exercise Helps Us Find Happiness, Hope, Connection, and Courage

You know how good moving your body is for your physical health. You probably have a vague sense that it’s good for your mental health too. But you likely don’t realize just how powerful movement truly is for your mind, and that it even affects your sense of hope, courage, connection, and identity.
 
My guest today explores these lesser-appreciated impacts of physical activity in her new book, The Joy of Movement. Her name is Kelly McGonigal and she’s a research psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University. Kelly and I begin our discussion with the idea of the runner’s high, and whether you can get it from doing forms of exercise other than running. We then discuss how exercise can become powerfully addictive, and yet be a uniquely healthy form of addiction that improves instead of destroys mental health. We then discuss the way that moving our bodies with others can generate collective joy, as well as a muscular bonding that makes a group feel bigger and stronger. We also get into what elements go into an ideal pump-up song, how physical movement helps create your sense of self, and why exercising in nature seems to amplify all its beneficial effects. We end our conversation with what you can start doing today to get more of the potent benefits of physical movement. 

If reading this in an email, click the title of the post to listen to the show.

Show Highlights

  • The deep connection between mental health and physical movement 
  • How exercise can fight loneliness 
  • What is the runner’s high? 
  • Why does our brain reward us for exercise?
  • Why movement fosters connection with others 
  • What happens when regular exercisers aren’t able to do it as regularly 
  • How exercise makes every pleasurable experience more potent 
  • The unique nature of ultra-runners 
  • The collective joy of exercising in groups 
  • What is “we agency”?
  • Why you shouldn’t necessarily start small when it comes to exercise 
  • What makes for the perfect workout pump-up song
  • Embracing cheesiness 
  • The secret supercharger for your workouts 

Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast

Book cover of The Joy of Movement by Kelly McGonigal.

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay:

Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. You know how good moving your body is for your physical health. You probably have a vague sense that it’s good for your mental health too. But you likely don’t realize just how powerful movement truly is for your mind, and that it even affects your sends of hope, courage, connection, and identity. My guest today explores these lesser-appreciated impacts of physical activity in her new book, The Joy of Movement. Her name is Kelly McGonigal, and she’s a research psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University. We had her on the podcast a while back ago to discuss willpower. That’s episode number 531 if you want to check that out.

Kelly and I begin our discussion today with the idea of the runner’s high and whether you can get it from doing forms of exercise other than running. We then discuss how exercise can become powerfully addictive, and yet be a uniquely healthy form of addiction that improves instead of destroys mental health. We then discuss the way that moving our bodies with others can generate collective joy, as well as muscular bonding that makes a group feel stronger and bigger. We also get into what elements go into an ideal pump-up song, how physical movement helps create your sense of self, and why exercising in nature seems to amplify all its beneficial effects. We end our conversation with what you can start doing today to get more of the potent benefits of physical movement. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at aom.is/joyofmovement.

All right, Kelly McGonigal, welcome back to the show.

Kelly McGonigal:

Thanks for having me back.

Brett McKay:

You got a new book, The Joy of Movement: How Exercise Helps Us Find Happiness, Hope, Connection, and Courage. We had you on the show last time to talk about the willpower instinct; we talked all about willpower. How’d you make the jump from willpower to movement in your research and writing?

Kelly McGonigal:

Well, so this is really a personal story. Although most people know me best as a psychologist, I’ve actually been teaching group exercise for 20 years, everything from yoga and dance to traditional fitness activities like strength training and cardio. And exercise has pretty much always been the number one thing I do to support my mental health, the sort of thing that I can choose to do that helps me deal with stress and anxiety and depression. So, I was so excited to finally write this book, because so much science has come out in the last decade that is awe inspiring, that blows my mind about how deep the relationship between exercise and mental health and happiness is. So, wasn’t much of a jump, it’s more like a… It was finally time.

Brett McKay:

Right. So you said… I like how your connection to exercise is about mental health. Because usually, books about exercise, it’s all about cardiovascular health, you need to exercise because it’s good for you, but your focus on this book was the emotional/mental aspect of movement.

Kelly McGonigal:

Yes, and of course it’s true that exercise is good for your physical health; I think most people know that. But I think most people don’t understand how deep the connection is between moving your body and taking care of your brain. Most people don’t understand the deep relationship between movement and sense of self, self-confidence, your belief in a positive future for yourself, and also social connection and how we find our place in the world. And so, I want to talk about something that I think is exciting because it demonstrates the value of movement for every body, no matter what your age, what your size, what your physical health status, if you have disabilities, injuries, severe mental health challenges. The research is really clear that no matter who you are, where you live, and what your status is, any way you want to slice it, that if you move your body more in whatever way you can, that it pretty much guarantees that you’ll be happier and feel more connected to others.

So, I like talking about it from that perspective too, because too often, we associate exercise with feeling like our body’s the enemy. We’re trying to control our bodies, we’re trying to fix our bodies or focus on making our bodies look acceptable to other people or more attractive to other people. And I don’t know, that’s kind of joyless, and I wanted to focus on how much exercise gives us, both immediately, like the mood boost that you can get as soon as you move your body, to the really deep meaning that people often find in pursuing mastery in different forms of movement, or the true belonging that they feel in communities where they move.

Brett McKay:

I like the focus on the community aspect, because that’s a growing problem in Western countries, is this sense of isolation and feeling like you’re alone, and exercise can be a way to overlook that. We’ll get into that, why that happens, but I really loved how you focused on that. So, let’s talk about the one thing that people typically associate with physical activity and boosting their mood, and it’s the runner’s high. The mythical runner’s high. Now, I don’t think I’ve ever experienced the runner’s high.

Kelly McGonigal:

Now, are you a runner?

Brett McKay:

I’m not a runner.

Kelly McGonigal:

Yeah, I’m not a runner either. But you-

Brett McKay:

So, have you felt it?

Kelly McGonigal:

Oh, yeah, I feel it all the time, just not from running. I mean, so here’s the thing with running, it’s a very specific physical movement form. If you don’t train for it, it’s pretty miserable, and I have never trained for it. So if I have to run around the block, I’m huffing and puffing, but put me in a dance cardio room, I can dance for hours. So I get my high in other ways, from kickboxing, from strength training, from flow yoga, from dance.

The runner’s high is not exclusive to running; it can be experienced in any physical activity where basically, you get your heart rate up a little bit and you keep going. In the book, I call it a persistence high, because the only thing that really seems to be required to trigger it is that you do something moderately difficult, you get your heart rate up a little bit, you’re breathing a little bit more, maybe you break a sweat, and you do it for maybe 20 minutes or so. That’s where it really seems to kick in. Have you experienced that in physical forms of movement other than running?

Brett McKay:

Yeah, maybe dances in high school, right? They’d be like an hour and a half long, and you’re just moving the entire time to whatever, Cotton Eye Joe, is that what we listened to back then, I think?

Kelly McGonigal:

Did you? Yeah, it was a great song.

Brett McKay:

I don’t know, probably, yeah. How do people describe what it feels like? I can kind of… You kind of feel euphoric, I guess is the feeling that I can… Yeah.

Kelly McGonigal:

Yeah. I think that it’s a spectrum. So, some of the quotes that I found people describing a runner’s high, it sounds to me almost insane. People talk about it as being like you’re on every drug imaginable, and you feel at one with the universe, and you’re floating, and you’re connected to the universe. All the way down to what I think is the lowest level of a persistence high, which is one that really is available to pretty much everyone, even when you’re not having that peak experience, is suddenly a sense that whatever was going on inside your mind that might have been troubling you, worries, stress, anger, self-doubt or self-criticism, that seems to recede. People start to experience a quieter mind or a more focused mind, where a lot of that stuff that causes us a lot of mental suffering, that fades back, and the same with physical pain and physical discomfort. And at the same time, your sense of optimism, your sense of confidence, your sense of hope, sort of the belief that things could be good, that things are good, that seems to be enhanced.

And that’s sort of like… The key mental effect of any form of movement, sometimes called the feel-better effect, is an increase in energy and optimism and a decrease in stress, anxiety, and pain. And what’s so interesting is we now know, even though most people think that the reason for this feel-better effect is only endorphins, like an endorphin rush, and maybe the people who are having that insane peak experience where they’re at one with the universe, I’m sure there’s some endorphins involved in that, but that the general feel-better effect seems to be driven by a class of brain chemicals called endocannabinoids, which are the same brain chemicals that cannabis mimics.

And endocannabinoids are just this fascinating brain chemical that basically dampen down everything that’s going on in your brain that most people want to avoid, like stress and worry and pain, and it facilitates anything good that might be happening, like it enhances the pleasure that you get from anything, it increases your motivation, it increases the joy that you feel. Anything that’s good that could trigger your brain, the endocannabinoids is going to basically amp it up. And that’s the runner’s high, that’s the persistence high. And again, the research is pretty clear that you can get it from any activity, cycling, hiking, swimming, dancing, flow yoga, if you get your heart rate up a little bit and just keep going.

Brett McKay:

Do we know why our brain does that when we do that?

Kelly McGonigal:

So, there are theories, and I would say the dominant theory right now is that human beings really changed the way that they live and survive that required them to work physically harder in order to survive. So, they had to go out and forage and hunt and gather, and work together physically to support the community. And the idea is that, basically, the humans who survived were the ones whose brains rewarded them for being physically active for hours a day.

So, our brains reward us for things that are necessary to survive, and our brains reward us for eating and for seeking food, our brains reward us for mating and having sex and reproducing. Our brains reward us for a lot of things now that probably the earliest human brain didn’t reward people for, like cooperating with others, we get that cooperation high. And it seems like as humans became what you could consider modern humans, one of the things our brains needed to figure out how to reward us for was being active, so that we wouldn’t get so lazy that we weren’t willing to put in the effort to feed ourselves, to feed our community, and do the physical labor necessary to survive as a community.

So that’s the idea, that basically, as soon as you… It’s like, you know, our brains will try to conserve our energy if it’s not necessary, so before you exercise, none of this runner’s high stuff is happening. And there’s actually a pretty big gap, even if you just think, “Oh, maybe I’ll go for a walk or a run, or I’ll go to the gym,” your brain will be like, “Are you really sure? Do you really need to use that energy?” And that’s why it seems to take a little bit of time to kick in; it’s like when you say, “This matters to me, this is a goal, I am doing this, it’s real,” then your brain is like, “Oh, I guess this matters, so let’s reward this human being for this.” And I think that’s probably why the 20-minute kick-in, it’s like your brain is testing you, but if you’re really on that hunt, if you’re really foraging, if you’re really putting in the physical labor, your brain will say, “Okay, I got you,” and will produce the brain chemicals you need to feel good and want to keep going.

Brett McKay:

An interesting point you made about the persistence high is not only does it make you feel good but, as you said, it makes you want to bond with others, other people, like suddenly… People report this, after they finish a 5K, like, “I love everyone here.”

Kelly McGonigal:

Yes. And it’s all forms of exercise, I mean, there’s so many ways that this shows up, even the one studio I teach at where they had to keep increasing the time between classes because people wouldn’t leave, because after a workout, they were like, “Oh, I want to talk to these people, they’re my friends,” even though they just moved in silence in a yoga class together. And it is the case that that basic neurochemistry of the exercise high, one of its primary effects is to help us bond with others. Endocannabinoids enhance social pleasures, particularly, so other people’s jokes are funnier, it’s more interesting to hear other people’s stories, you get a bigger warm glow from helping others, you’re more willing to be helped by others.

It’s basically, endocannabinoids support our interdependent nature as a species. And I think that that’s so fascinating, how that goes hand in hand with our… sort of the need for human beings to persist and to work hard and to chase what we want, that the same brain reward we get for that also reminds us to share it with others, that we’re not in this only for ourselves. And I really, I think that describes human nature, actually, pretty well, that we’re willing to work hard, and also, when we are at our best, we are willing to share. We enjoy, if we go out and get our dinner, we enjoy sharing it with our friends and with our family. And so the exercise high actually primes us to do both and bring both of those aspects of our human nature out.

Brett McKay:

Right, so it’s an exercise high, not a runner’s high. You can have this doing whatever it is you like to do. So the key is it’s-

Kelly McGonigal:

Yeah, and nothing against runners. One of the reasons I focus, I start with the runner’s high in the book, and why I include a lot of stories about runners is I’m married to a runner, my twin sister is a devoted runner, I have a lot of runners in my life, and I wanted to understand why they are so particularly passionate about it, because I will tell you, runners have the most interesting relationship to movement, I think, of any people that I’ve spoken to. Runners can tell you from their direct experience all the things that I learned by digging into the science.

Brett McKay:

We’ll talk some more about the things that runners do. I’m going to have to do the Cotton Eye Joe, I think, to tap this.

Kelly McGonigal:

Yeah, we can dance, for sure.

Brett McKay:

Dance is one, hiking… But yeah, the Cotton Eye Joe, I’m going to dance. All right, so let’s talk about this feeling. You know, exercise feels good. For some people, it can feel… That feel-good feeling they get from exercise can almost feel like they’re compelled or they’re addicted.

Kelly McGonigal:

Yeah.

Brett McKay:

And it’s like they miss a run, or they miss a workout, you get really pissy, you get down in the dumps. Is the same thing that’s going on with addiction to drugs going on with exercise?

Kelly McGonigal:

This is a question that I decided to explore pretty thoroughly, because certainly, I know in my own life that if I’m unable to exercise as much as I usually do because of travel, or illness or injury, or there was a period of my time dealing with grief where my brain did not want to help me move, I definitely notice the effect that it has on my wellbeing. One of the very first studies that I came across when I was looking into this, it was from the 1970s, and they were trying to pay people to stop exercising, to study how it influences your sleep quality. And these poor psychiatrists, they could not find anyone who was willing to be paid any amount of money to stop exercising who already exercised regularly. And even the ones who were willing to reduce it, they complained about exercise deprivation and severe mood disturbances. They were so unhappy and miserable because they couldn’t exercise.

So I was curious, is this something that… Is this a harmful addiction that most people are struggling with? What’s going on here? And I’ll give you sort of the spoilers to start with. First of all, most people who are addicted to exercise have a very healthy, functional dependence on it, as opposed to a really unhealthy, self-destructive dependence, although that’s possible.

And often, the people who fall into that self-destructive dependence, where they are working out all day, they’re working out despite injuries, it’s ruining relationships, it’s getting in the way of work, it’s maybe destroying their health, but they just… they have to do more and more, most of those cases, it starts with a mental health challenge. And because exercise is so powerful at immediately making you feel better, and also helping your brain deal with stress and anxiety and depression, it’s one of the only things that reliably works, and so a lot of people who fall into that unhealthy dependence, it’s almost like they found the miracle drug, and their brains get hooked on it in a way that really can become quite dramatic. But for most people, it’s a healthy dependence, and it’s that it’s such an effective way to boost your mood, to improve your mindset, to make you a better version of yourself, it becomes really noticeable when that’s absent in your life.

But the second spoiler that I think is so important is that we know that when most people get addicted to substances that exercise is often compared to, so let’s say something like heroin or cocaine or methamphetamines, that the primary effect of those substances is to destroy your brain’s capacity to experience reward from anything other than that drug. It basically kills off your reward system, so you have less dopamine available, your brain does not want to respond to a sunset or delicious food or the loving embrace of your child. Your brain is just like, “Nope, give me the cocaine, give me the heroin. That’s the only thing I’m going to respond to.”

And exercise seems to have exactly the opposite effect on your brain, and this is what I found most fascinating when I was trying to figure out, is exercise just another addiction? Exercise seems to be the only natural reward that makes your reward system more robust. It sensitizes your brain to other pleasures so that everything is more enjoyable. Actually, there was a brand-new review paper that was just published about this I was looking at, and I pulled out a quote from it that I plan to use that says that exercise is a “natural reward that is unique in its neuroplastic effects on the reward system.” Basically, everything else you can get addicted to is going to make you more miserable, less motivated, and susceptible to depression and isolation, and exercise basically rescues you from that. So that’s the bottom line.

Brett McKay:

Yeah, so it’s not like cocaine, it’s like the better version of… the good version of cocaine, of good drugs. So, going there-

Kelly McGonigal:

Yeah, I mean-

Brett McKay:

Go ahead.

Kelly McGonigal:

But let’s be clear about… That’s because it’s what the brain naturally does on its own, and the reason not to get into… I wouldn’t want to get into any sort of moral issues around this, just from a brain science point of view, the reason that drugs aren’t good for you is because they are so overwhelmingly good when you first take them that your brain can’t handle it, and that’s what leads to these unhealthy, destructive addictions. And I think, you know, exercise, it’s not that it’s a good version of cocaine, it’s that it’s your brain’s natural best reward. And cocaine and everything else, they’re in there just sort of mucking around with the brain systems, but exercise is sort of what your brain knows how to reward you for in a way that helps you engage with life.

And there’s something kind of metaphorical about this, like you exercise and your brain says, “Oh, I’m engaged in life. I’m out here doing stuff that matters.” That’s how your brain understands physical movement. “I’m moving forward, I’m making progress, I’m doing things that matter to me and my community.” That’s just how your brain understands it. Whether you’re walking on a track, or you’re dancing in your living room with your kid, your brain just… That’s how it thinks about the feedback it gets from your heart rate increasing, and your muscles moving, and all that blood flow. And that is just not what is happening when you take other substances that hijack the reward system.

Brett McKay:

Well, going back to runners, one thing you point out in the book is as you were researching, particularly ultramarathoners, a lot of the people who pick up ultramarathons, they used to… They’re recovering addicts of some sort, or they’re managing some sort of mental illness, you know, anxiety or depression.

Kelly McGonigal:

Yeah, it’s almost like proof of concept, so the people who end up doing the most are the ones who most need the medicine of exercise. And I have to say, first of all, people sometimes think when I say exercise is good for depression, I’m saying don’t take medications or don’t go to therapy. I’m a psychologist and I’m a scientist, so of course I support everything that works, and there’s great evidence for psychotherapy, and great evidence for various medications for different psychological illnesses. So I’m not saying if you’re depressed, just go for a hike.

However, I do think the ultra-endurance community’s really interesting, because you have so many people in it who discovered the sport at a time when their brains were really vulnerable, either because of longstanding susceptibility to things like depression, or having basically destroyed the reward system’s natural function through years of substance use. And when you are in that kind of a vulnerable state, movement is such powerful medicine that they’re the ones who are willing to keep going further and longer.

When I first started talking to ultra-endurance athletes, I could not understand why you would need to do that much. I mean, of course I love exercise, I love how it feels in its most ideal form, I’ll go to a fitness conference and work out for hours a day as a special vacation. But the idea that you would just keep going and keep going and keep going to test the limits of what your body can endure, that was really a new mindset for me, like, why do you need to do that much?

And what I learned from talking to them and watching what was happening at races is, it’s not so much that they need to do that much, but that they discover who they are by doing that much. And part of it is how it’s medicine for the brain, and part of it also is how it really challenges the stories that so many people who’ve struggled with addiction or depression or anxiety live with, those stories about “I can’t do this, I can’t take another day, I can’t go another minute, it’s all too much,” or stories about worthiness. And you get literal feedback through movement that you can take one more step even when it feels like you can’t, that you are someone who can do amazingly difficult things, and that you’ll be supported by other people when you do it.

And that was the thing that I think finally cracked open for me why ultra-endurance sports are so powerful to the people who choose them. It was watching these races where people would almost be crawling, they’re so exhausted, and other people would lift them up and carry them forward, and that every athlete, when I asked them, “Tell me about why you do this, why it matters,” almost everyone I talked to, they start with and end with community, and that experience of getting to, in a single race, help other people, be helped by other people, be cheered on and be celebrated for your strengths, and to get to do that for other people. It is the most beautiful expression of getting to be on the full circle of social support and human connection.

Brett McKay:

Yeah, I thought that was really interesting about the ultramarathoners, where they say they do it for the… Part of the big reason is they do it for the community, because you think of ultramarathoners more of like a loner sport, because you’re just out there by yourself, right, for 50-

Kelly McGonigal:

Parts of it, yeah.

Brett McKay:

Yeah, for a lot, yeah, for parts of it, for a long time. But the way you describe it, there’s definitely a community there where everyone’s just supporting one another. It’s not very competitive, it’s just like, it’s more about lifting each other up.

Kelly McGonigal:

Yeah. Yeah, one runner told me the difference between a marathon and an ultramarathon is when you’re running a marathon, everyone in the race is an impediment to your best time, and it’s sort of annoying that there are all these other people on the road or on the trail, and that in an ultramarathon, it’s so hard you are just grateful that other people are in this with you, and it helps to think about other people sharing in the struggle, and you need them. And so, when someone is there and they’re willing to cheer you on or help you out, you just, you need people in a different way.

I thought that was so interesting. I mean, I’m sure I would feel that way if I tried to run a marathon, I’d be like, “Please help, help.” But I thought that was such an interesting distinction, that that was why somebody would choose an ultramarathon over just competing to be their best in the way that a lot of people can get hung up on personal bests and timing and records when they first get involved in running. It seems to be a different experience in the ultra world.

Brett McKay:

Let’s dig in more to this idea of moving within groups, because you’ve unpacked a lot of research from sociologists, anthropologists, highlighting the fact that human beings love to move in unison with one another.

Kelly McGonigal:

Yes. Okay, so let’s talk about that. There’s a word for it that I use, collective joy, and that’s a… I think it’s a spinoff of the idea of collective effervescence, which is this concept that Emile Durkheim put forward to describe why human beings get a thrill when they physically move together in celebration, in ritual, in prayer, in physical labor, in cooperation, this idea that when we move together, we feel connected to something bigger than ourselves, and there’s something… It requires our bodies; it’s not an idea, it’s a physical experience. And so, he observed it just thinking about human nature, and then recently, psychologists and neuroscientists have tried to study, what’s happening in the brain when people feel connected to others because they’re doing a wave at a sporting event, or they’re step-touching together in an aerobics class, or they’re walking in stride together in the park? Why do people feel so empowered and so connected?

And it’s a couple of different things that seem to be going on, but one of them is that moving together seems to be one of the ways that humans socially groom one another. I don’t know if you’ve seen these videos of primates where they’ll pick ticks off one another and brush one another’s hair.

Brett McKay:

Yeah.

Kelly McGonigal:

You’ve seen that stuff?

Brett McKay:

Yeah, oh yeah. It’s a lot of fun.

Kelly McGonigal:

So that’s how primates often bond, and it releases endorphins, and those endorphins are like a bonding hormone. So when you experience an endorphin rush at the same time that somebody else is experiencing an endorphin rush, and you understand that experience as connected, it’s like social glue. It makes you like the other person more, trust them more, or if you’re a primate, like the other primate more, trust them more, you’re more willing to help them out later on. So primate researchers call that social grooming, and it seems like humans have a couple different forms of being able to socially groom in groups. So, wouldn’t necessarily be in a… brushing one another’s hair in a group situation, but you can dance together, you can also sing together, you can laugh together, you can eat together. These are forms of social grooming. They all release endorphins, and movement seems particularly powerful, that when you move with other people, it leads to an endorphin rush that makes you like them more, trust them more.

And those same endorphins start to give you this kind of euphoria that Durkheim was talking about, the sense of transcendence. And when it’s extreme, it really is a thrill, that you feel like you’ve escaped the confines of your small, narrow reality, and you just are connected to an energy and a possibility bigger than yourself. You know, go to a rave and people will talk about that, go to a religious experience where people are moving together, people will tell you about that.

Brett McKay:

Yeah, I think everyone’s… I’ve experienced that at a concert, right?

Kelly McGonigal:

Mm-hmm (affirmative), yeah.

Brett McKay:

Like, go to a really good concert, and you just, like-

Kelly McGonigal:

Music enhances collective joy.

Brett McKay:

Music, oh yeah.

Kelly McGonigal:

Yeah, and it’s why, I think exercise classes have figured this out, even movement forms that traditionally were not done to a soundtrack, like flow yoga, here in the West, music has become a very important part of that. Because as you mentioned earlier, people are so lonely and lacking a sense of belonging, and as soon as you add a positive soundtrack, or you move to the beat of music along with moving in synchrony with other people, the music has such a powerful amplifying effect. I think it’s why I love group fitness, because whether I’m kickboxing or lifting weights or dancing or doing yoga, it’s always to a soundtrack that really brings out that joy.

Brett McKay:

Well, I want to talk about music, because you have a whole chapter of that. But going back to this idea of exercising or moving within groups, you also highlight an insight from a historian, this guy named William McNeill, who was a World War II vet. And he had this idea about troops who train together, they create what he called muscular bonding, and that it actually created what they call we-agency, W-E agency. So, talk about that idea of muscular bonding and we-agency.

Kelly McGonigal:

Yeah. Right, so Durkheim really focused on the joy aspect of it, the euphoria and the ecstasy and the belonging aspect. But what McNeill noticed when he was doing marching drills is that he felt empowered, that when he was marching in step with others, that he began to feel… He would describe it as like a swelling, bigger than… a bigger sense of self that felt powerful. And this is one of the other observations about the psychological effects of moving in groups or moving with other people, that you don’t just like the people you’re moving with more, but somehow your sense of self becomes bigger.

So it’s one of the reasons why people will often come together and move together in the name of fighting some threat that feels really big and really overwhelming. Whether you are walking for a cure, or people come together for a protest march when they’re outraged over something that is happening in their society, that people often come together and move together because it creates a sense of power, personal and collective, and also, interestingly, increases a sense of hope. So people can start out outraged at something, or despairing, hopeless, and moving together, studies show that it increases your belief that the problem can be solved. It increases your belief that other people are basically good and trustworthy, rather than that other people can’t be trusted, which is such an important part of our wellbeing as a society, is to believe that other people can be worked with. That moving together creates that mindset that gives you a sense of hope. That’s the we-agency part.

So I think that a lot of people will experience that as a psychological side benefit from sports drills, or CrossFit where people are doing difficult things together. A lot of people have that sense that it does remind them of kind of a military training that is designed to give you confidence that you can face anything.

Brett McKay:

So it makes you feel stronger, which makes the group stronger, because you have that confidence to act.

Kelly McGonigal:

Yeah, and it-

Brett McKay:

Oh, go ahead.

Kelly McGonigal:

Yes, that too. It actually does seem to make groups stronger, and it also makes them more intimidating to others. One of my favorite studies that I write about, they played the soundtracks of enemies approaching, and you had to rate how, basically, threatening and strong you thought the enemy was, based on just hearing them. And if the footsteps were in sync, people were like, “Wow, I think that they are stronger, they are more unified in their mission,” and also even imagine them as being physically larger than people approaching who were not walking in step. So, it’s a real effect that moving together increases your sense of power; it increases other people’s perception of your power.

And I think this is a great example of a self-fulfilling prophecy. One of the themes that runs through all of my work is that the beliefs that you hold about yourself and the world, they alter your physiology, they alter your brain function, they alter your behaviors, they alter how you present yourself to others in a way that has really powerful effects on how other people perceive you, what you draw out of situations, how the world treats you. And it’s this huge upward spiral, or could be a downward spiral.

I think this is one of the underestimated benefits of exercise or movement training, that it gives you a sense of personal power that seems to also go along with a sense that other people can be trusted or worked with, so that you go out in the world with a sense of confidence that is also open to positive possibilities. That’s kind of a unique, interesting mindset that can lead to advantages in a number of different situations and relationships, and that’s one of the ways that exercise can sort of change who you are.

Brett McKay:

I see teams, sports teams, they have little rituals they do before they actually play where they’re syncing together, whether it’s a warmup, or it could even be something like the New Zealand All Blacks, where they do the haka before the games.

Kelly McGonigal:

Yes, mm-hmm (affirmative).

Brett McKay:

It’s that same idea, it builds up that we-agency, that muscular bonding.

Kelly McGonigal:

I’m still waiting for someone to culturally appropriate that and turn that into a group fitness class.

Brett McKay:

The haka?

Kelly McGonigal:

Yeah. I’m sure it’s going to happen eventually, because it seems like such a powerful…

Brett McKay:

Yeah, we did that at my… Like, when I played football in high school, we did the haka before. Because we had this kid who was Maori, and he taught us how to do the haka, and it was really cool.

Kelly McGonigal:

Yeah.

Brett McKay:

So, let’s talk about… What’s the practical application? How can individuals and groups, like organizations, whether it’s a community organization, a business, a nonprofit, how can they harness this idea of muscular bonding to improve and foster health and bonding within an individual and within the group?

Kelly McGonigal:

Yeah, I mean, if I were to make a realistic suggestion… So, often what people think is, “Well, we’ll do a one-off event. We’ll send all our teams, our employees to an obstacle course, or we’ll do a single walk for a cure.” But really, this is about building a sense of community and agency over time through repeated movement experiences, so at a practical level, people need to have an opportunity to move collectively on a regular basis.

And so, the way you take advantage of this if you’re an individual is you find a movement community. And if you think that a team you lead or a community that you support would benefit from this, it’s about finding a way to make collective movement experiences available to them on a regular basis, like in the workplace, to have group fitness gyms, to find a place in the facility where that can happen, and that is going to have a different effect on the people in that community than putting some treadmills in an empty office where people are not moving collectively. You might think, “Oh, they’re both good for physical health,” but they’re going to probably have some pretty different psychological consequences for the community.

I also think that part of understanding our motivation for movement is that it can lead you to choose movement experiences that give you what you’re really looking for. So far, just in this conversation already, we’ve talked about different positive outcomes from movement, changing how you think about yourself, changing your brain’s sensitivity to joy and stress and reward, helping you find that sense of belonging.

And I think one of the takeaways that I want to give people is, you have to stop thinking about movement in the way we usually think about it, which is to look at how many steps are on your activity tracker, or your calorie burn, or what’s most convenient because that’s easiest. We’re so used to thinking, when you’re trying to build a new habit or do something good for your health, it’s pretty common advice, “Start small, start easy,” which can be really good advice if you’re trying to shift toward a healthier diet, but when it comes to movement, you really want to go all in and look for the thing that actually brings you meaning or joy or community, and I think that’s the other really practical takeaway for people, is to stop thinking so small about movement. And I realize, yes, we’re all busy, it’s hard to fit movement in, but you are far more likely to stick with something that is giving you immediate joy or helping you bond with others or empowering you, rather than the thing that’s easiest to do, and then is not giving you those other joys.

Brett McKay:

Right. And I think the takeaway from there, too, for an individual level is, say if you’ve had a hard time making exercise a habit, you’ve probably done the typical individual, “I’m going to go to the gym by myself and try to…” Instead of doing that, join a group. Could be… I mean, there’s tons of fitness groups out there. There’s pretty much anything for anything you could think of, jiu-jitsu…

Kelly McGonigal:

And lots of them are free, and many of them are outdoors. It’s any movement form you can imagine, there’s probably a social version of it and ones that are available, whatever community you want to connect with. I think that is definitely a takeaway. Although also, one of the things that I like to point out to people is, if you’re somebody who really wants movement as alone time, like you just, you need it for yourself, that feels like what is right for you, to trust that instinct and to know that, as we talked about the exercise high, that part of what it does is it creates a neurochemistry that helps you connect with others, and that persists for at least a couple hours afterward. So, you could go exercise on your own and have the idea that you’re basically priming yourself to return to work or return to your relationships a version of yourself who’s going to be more open to connecting with others.

Brett McKay:

I want to circle back to this idea of music. You talk about how it can amplify that collective effervescence, but it also… You highlight research that music can actually motivate you.

Kelly McGonigal:

Oh, yeah.

Brett McKay:

There’s something to the idea of a pump-up song. Have they scientifically figured out what is the perfect pump-up song for exercise?

Kelly McGonigal:

So, researchers have identified qualities that make it more likely that a song will bring out the best in you, that will help you work harder, work longer, beat your speed record, so there are certain characteristics of songs. But it’s always going to also come down to individual preferences and cultural associations. So, two of my favorite power songs, one is called Move (Keep Walkin’) by TobyMac, and the other is Warrior by Havana Brown, and what I’ve realized is that for whatever reason, songs that sing about being a warrior, Move (Keep Walkin’) there’s this line about being a soldier, keep fighting, there’s something about that that brings out in me a spirit that is willing to work harder, push harder, and enjoy the movement more. Like, the sweat means something different when I’ve got someone singing in my ear about being a warrior.

Whereas other people, that is going to be not for them. But if you’re looking what to start with, there seems to be a tempo that is universally supportive of movement, so around the world, 120 to 140 beats per minute seems to be most motivating. Now, that’s most pop and dance songs. I actually speed up hip-hop tracks that I play, because most hip-hop tracks are a little slower than that, speed them up a little bit for workouts. And they also tend to have a very clear beat that you can synchronize your stride or your movement with. Power songs also tend to have an energetic or upbeat feel. It doesn’t necessarily mean happy, but that there’s a sense of drive to it.

And also, lyrics seem to be super important. I mentioned I like lyrics about fighting, and keep going, and being a warrior, and a lot of the songs that bring out the best in people physically and psychologically, they seem to have lyrics that are either about physical action, like move, run, go, work, or about psychological attributes that you experience through movement, like strength and persistence and courage, and sometimes gratitude, which is one that has come up talking to a number of people. They love music that feels like a celebration, and that really supports their ability to keep moving. And then also, music that you associate with a positive time in your life or positive memories, or just positive things you enjoy, like the soundtrack from a film. All of those narrative memories can come in and make you feel a certain way, which changes how you interpret what it means that your legs are getting tired, or that your heart is pounding.

Brett McKay:

No, I’m the same way with the power song. My power song for doing PRs when I’m weightlifting, my two go-to is, the first one is All These Things That I’ve Done, by The Killers, where it’s got that line, (singing). I fast-forward to there and then I wait until the crescendo, where they have the-

Kelly McGonigal:

Oh, that’s amazing.

Brett McKay:

And the other one is Airbourne, it’s like a metal band, they have this-

Kelly McGonigal:

I don’t know that.

Brett McKay:

Yeah, it’s… Back in the Game is the song, (singing).

Kelly McGonigal:

I like it.

Brett McKay:

It’s so cheesy, but I love it, it’s fantastic.

Kelly McGonigal:

Let’s talk about this, because I do feel like you have to embrace cheese. There’s something about a lot of what we’re talking about that requires abandoning cynicism, so let’s just talk about that. You know, the idea that you can take joy in moving with others, that you can take joy in helping someone out in an ultramarathon, that you can let yourself be uplifted by lyrics in a song.

I think there is a tendency for some people to think, “Oh, that’s a little bit silly, or it’s a little bit cheesy,” but I am here to say, that is the best part of human nature. We have the ability to be moved by these things because they help us survive as a species. That’s part of our human nature. And so, anyone who feels a little silly about being moved by a song… You know, I will see people moved to tears by music in combination with their own experience of their physical strength while working out. You should embrace it, take joy in it. This is part of what literally gives us a will to live, is our capacity to experience what can appear to be cheesy joys.

Brett McKay:

I also listen to Taylor Swift sometimes when I… I don’t feel any shame.

Kelly McGonigal:

That is a perfect example.

Brett McKay:

I don’t feel any shame with that.

Kelly McGonigal:

Shake It Off is the perfect song to dance to with children, by the way, talk about cheesy joys, is dance parties with children. I’ve yet to meet a four or five-year-old who will not immediately explode with joy when Shake It Off comes on.

Brett McKay:

It’s a good one. It’s a good one, it’s catchy. All right, so, this idea that you’ve been hitting on, about how movement can give us a sense of self. It’s like it’s the thing that makes us human, it can foster confidence in our capability in the world. How have you seen that in the research you’ve done of movement fostering that confidence in individuals?

Kelly McGonigal:

Yeah. Well, so there’s the research, and then there’s the stories I’ve heard, and then there are the things that I see in my own experience teaching classes. So, I’ve been teaching for two decades. I remember early on as a yoga teacher, a woman who had been wanting to do a headstand for a long time, I think she was maybe about 50 years old, never gone upside-down, never thought she could do it, and she also was a breast cancer survivor. And I remember the first time I helped her hold a headstand, and she used the wall for support. Nobody would’ve taken a picture of it and said, “This is the world’s most perfect headstand”; she held it, and she used her core strength to get into it. And when she came down, she could not stop laughing, and it was this uncontrollable laughter of shock, shock and positive surprise, and she just kept saying, “I can’t believe I just did that.”

Part of it for her was the sense of after going through cancer treatment, a sense of, “What’s still possible for me?” and the way that that type of health crisis can really undermine your sense of a positive vision for your future. And being able to do a headstand was like a literal, visceral sense of her own strength, the shock of being able to do something she never thought she could do, and that this all happened after her cancer diagnosis and treatment was really a meaningful moment. And I’ve seen things like that happen all the time, that people do things that surprise them. They have these movement milestones, and it changes what they think that they’re capable of.

Now, at the science level, what I think is so interesting is that part of how we know who we are, literally, is proprioception. That’s the feedback that your muscles give you, that your tendons and your joints give you about what your body is doing. And if you look at case studies of people who have lost the ability to feel their own arms, to feel their muscles, to feel their body in motion, they don’t just tell you, “I don’t feel my arms,” they will say things like, “I have no idea who I am. I’m like a ghost.” Their sense of being a person is so hard to grasp on to because so much of our sense of self is delivered to us from our muscles, from the neuromuscular feedback of our bodies.

And so, when you move in ways that express clear qualities, you move with power, you move with grace, you move with freedom, speed, or beauty, or sensuality, your brain gets the message, “This is who I am.” Your body gets the message not just that my legs are powerful, but your brain basically takes a shortcut to “I am powerful.” And I think the science is really fascinating about that, because that’s another way to choose your workout, is to ask yourself what movements really reflect who you want to be in the world, the qualities that you want to express or cultivate, and is there a movement form where you’re going to literally sense that in yourself, you’ll be able to train that quality?

I would say that for me, that’s one of the reasons why I like kickboxing. I remember some of the early kickboxing experiences, I was like, “This is really aggressive.” I was almost scared, throwing this downward street punch. I was like, “Who am I? I kind of like this,” and it surprised me. And I found through kickboxing a way to literally sense my own courage. I will often do a kickboxing workout before I have to do something that I’m feeling really anxious about or that I can’t control. So that’s one example of how we can use the science to get more out of our workouts.

Brett McKay:

Going into the idea of movement kind of giving you a sense of self, I mean, one of the… I think you talk about this in the book, about Parkinson’s patients. Not only do they have issues with movement, right, but that affects them psychologically. A lot of Parkinson’s patients have to deal with depression as well. But what the research shows is that one of the best things you can do if you have Parkinson’s is to move, to exercise. We actually had a guy on the podcast a while back ago, he runs a boxing gym, and he specializes with Parkinson’s patients. They do boxing workouts.

Kelly McGonigal:

Yes. Actually, so in the book, I visited a dance class for people with Parkinson’s disease, but also a gym where people… It’s a boxing gym and a strength training gym for people with neurological disorders as well as physical disabilities. Both of them were amazing experiences because everyone is full out, experiencing the joy and the benefits of movement and community, despite some pretty serious physical and neurological obstacles. And the thing about Parkinson’s that is so interesting is, we think about walking as the first thing that becomes challenging, or when you become aware of symptoms like tremors when you’re reaching for something. And we know that reaching, walking, running, dancing, all of that, that’s a movement, we don’t often appreciate how much communication is also a movement. Whether you’re making hand gestures, or you’re hugging someone, or even making eye contact with people, the expressions on your face, smiling, that is all movement. And one of the things that becomes so overwhelmingly isolating about Parkinson’s as it progresses is it’s not just something like walking that becomes difficult, but it’s emotion expression, and then, as a consequence, social connection.

And what I loved seeing at the dance class for people with Parkinson’s disease is that by the time they were moving, and the music was so supportive of that, music literally activating the motor system of the brain, increasing dopamine to basically reverse some of the symptoms of a disease that is characterized by low dopamine, halfway through the class, how much more they were able to connect with one another. Smiles, or shaking hands, we were interacting with one another in a way that was really meaningful and joyful. And I think that that is another example of how much movement is connected to that part of our human nature. We started out talking about how the runner’s high can help you connect with others by changing your brain chemistry, and this is just, the Parkinson’s class was just a perfect example of that, how we also need to be able to move in order to connect with one another. And every form of exercise we do is basically enhancing that capacity.

Brett McKay:

We’ve talked about how exercising can make us feel good, exercising makes us want to bond, exercising with groups kind of promotes that idea of wanting to move more, music can amplify that. But something that can supercharge all these benefits of movement is moving outside in the great outdoors, in nature. What’s going on in our brains when we exercise outside?

Kelly McGonigal:

This is a really new field of research, so I’ll tell you… I’m being sort of speculative about this, but I like doing that sometimes. It’s like, where is the science pointing us, and we’ll find out if we can confirm this. So, when people exercise outdoors, they often report feeling different in a way that transcends the feel-better effect. And they describe things that, when you actually lay it out side by side, it looks a lot like what people report when they are taking entheogens, which is a class of drugs that include LSD and ayahuasca and mushrooms, drugs that are meant to induce a spiritual experience, to change your consciousness in ways that are often very positive. And people will talk about feeling at one with the universe, feeling a sense of love and connection, a sense of themselves sort of dissolving into something… You can’t even describe it in words, like words fail.

And one of the ideas about why people experience that kind of self-transcendence and unity sensation in nature is that when we’re out in nature, our default state of the brain changes. So, we know that most people’s brains, when you leave them to their own devices and don’t give them something else to focus on, the brain defaults to rumination, worrying, judging other people, judging ourselves, planning. I’m sure everyone listening to this understands what that state is. If you have trouble falling asleep at night, you know what it is, that’s the content of your insomnia. It’s one of the reasons why we’re so attracted to our phones, because sometimes we just… If we leave our mind to our own devices, it just goes to places we don’t want to go, so we’re looking for some sort of positive distraction.

So that’s the default state; most human brains go there by default when there’s nothing else to focus on. And it seems like that nature shuts that down, that when people are out in nature, the parts of the default state that are focused inward, on worry, rumination, time travel, like thinking about the past or the future, those systems of the brain, they basically, they quiet down. And instead, the brain becomes open to the present moment, including senses: what you see, what you smell, what you hear, what you feel in your body.

And it’s that kind of relief from the default state and that inner chatter that feels transcendent to people, that is a spiritual experience. And funnily enough, if you look at some of the new brain science on what entheogens do to the brain, something like LSD, it is disrupting the default state, sometimes in much more chaotic ways than being in nature. Nature seems to quiet it down; drugs like LSD and ayahuasca seem to go in and create really new and interesting default states, things that are different from our usual default. But all of those drugs, they basically are working on this, like shutting down that same inner narrative. So, I think that’s why a lot of people who love exercising in nature, they talk about it as being like a therapy for their minds, that it is one of the places where they can get relief if their minds are not always an easy place to be.

Brett McKay:

And in a lot of people in our modern world, they’re suffering a nature deficit, so they’re always in that default mode.

Kelly McGonigal:

Yeah, and I think it’s… So, one of the things that I speculate about in the book… And this is, to be clear, this is my idea, so if it’s wrong, I’ll take full responsibility for it. Because I’m somebody who has studied meditation for decades and has researched it, and one of the things that I’ve always struggled with is the meditation masters in every tradition, they will tell you that the default state of the human mind is basically this transcendent happiness, this ease, this peace of mind. And they will tell you in all these traditions, that is the default state, and that really flies against the neuroscience research that if you actually look at what the human brain does, by default, the natural state seems to be something much closer to mental suffering.

And what I began to think about is, maybe we have two default states, and we have the default state that is pulled out of us by the environment we live in, which is indoors, often in these social situations that encourage us to think about ourselves and think about other people, in environments and relationships and roles that are encouraging us to time travel, to try to fix the future or reflect on the past. But maybe there’s another default state that is associated with that early human need to go out into nature and find things, to find food, to find safety. And maybe the human brain has this other default state that basically is, stop thinking about all that other stuff, pay attention to the present moment, find out what’s possible in this moment. And when people are in that state, they tend to feel really good, they tend to have that kind of peace of mind that meditation masters tell us is the default state.

So, I’m thinking maybe that one of the reasons why so many people are struggling with mental health issues is that we do have this nature deficit. And there’s some research that has even put a number on it, like a certain percentage of cases of depression worldwide could be prevented if people spent more time in a natural environment where they feel safe and they feel inspired. That’s an important one. Like, if you threw me into the woods, I think I would just probably be scared. But you put me in a beautiful park, or a waterfront walk place where I can see buildings and other people, and I’ll have that kind of nature effect.

Brett McKay:

So, the takeaway there, go out, take a hike in the woods. Well, maybe not for you.

Kelly McGonigal:

Yeah, not… It depends.

Brett McKay:

Right, depends.

Kelly McGonigal:

You got to think about where you feel safe and where you feel inspired.

Brett McKay:

But then also take someone with you, like a friend.

Kelly McGonigal:

Maybe.

Brett McKay:

Maybe.

Kelly McGonigal:

Well, no, but it’s so interesting, right? Because we’ve talked so much about how important other people are, but I would say most people who love exercising in nature, they are the ones who tell me they want to do it by themselves too.

Brett McKay:

Okay.

Kelly McGonigal:

And again, I think it’s that you have to trust… You have to go with your direct experience. Movement is personalized medicine that you kind of… It’s a do-it-yourself personalized medicine, and there is a form of exercise or movement that can heal almost any sort of human suffering, but it’s not all of it for all of us. Like, you and I maybe will never run, but we have our thing.

Brett McKay:

We got our thing. What’s something someone who’s listening to this episode right now can do today to start enjoying the joy of movement?

Kelly McGonigal:

Well, so, one thing you can do without actually moving yet is to think about the forms of movement that inspire you. I often ask people, “If you were to be on YouTube or something, is there a video you would pause and watch? You’re scrolling through Instagram, is there something you would actually pause and watch, and think, ‘That’s really cool, that’s really interesting, I’m really impressed,’ something like that?” And to think about what the version of that movement is that would work for your body and your life right now. I think we don’t often use inspiration as our first motivation, but if there’s a form of movement that inspires you, and maybe even there’s a voice in your head that says, “I could never do that. I could never do powerlifting,” or “I could never run a marathon,” or “I’d be too embarrassed to go to that dance class, although I will watch this video of these people doing this amazing choreography,” that’s the perfect movement form to start with. So that’s the first encouragement, is to think about inspiration as your motivation, rather than burning calories or convenience.

And the other thing is to think about a movement you can do today that feels connected to other things that you enjoy in life and want to experience more joy with, and you can do a very small dose of this. So, you and I have talked about a number of things today that bring out the human capacity for joy: connecting with other people, being in nature, listening to music. Those are some very simple ones. So, what if you think about the one that brings out the most joy in you, and then just do it? So, go for a walk with your dog, if your dog brings out the joy in you. Have a dance party with your roommate or your kid or your spouse, if connecting with other people brings out the joy in you, or music brings out the joy in you. Go find a place in nature where you can do some stretches or take a walk.

And that’s one of the best things about movement, is when you abandon the idea that it has to look like a specific exercise formula that has been carefully crafted to give you the best muscle outcome or whatever, when you start to think, movement is about life, and movement can connect you to joys in a really deep way, it will lead you to forms of movement that really take advantage of how exercise changes our brain chemistry and expands our capacity for connection and joy and all of that.

Brett McKay:

Well, Kelly, is there someplace people can go learn more about the book and your work?

Kelly McGonigal:

Well, the book is The Joy of Movement, and yeah, I’m just… I’m out there encouraging people on social media under my own name, or you can find me at kellymcgonigal.com.

Brett McKay:

All right, well, Kelly McGonigal, thanks so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Kelly McGonigal:

Thank you.

Brett McKay:

My guest today was Kelly McGonigal. She’s the author of the book The Joy of Movement. It’s available on amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. You can find out more information about her work at her website, kellymcgonigal.com. Also, check out our show notes at aom.is/kellymcgonigal. You can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of the AOM podcast. Check out our website at artofmanliness.com, where you can find our podcast archives, we have over 500 episodes there, as well as thousands of articles we’ve written over the years about exercise, movement, all that stuff we talked about today. And if you’d like to enjoy ad-free episodes of the AOM podcast, you can do so on Stitcher Premium. Head over to stitcherpremium.com, sign up, use code “manliness” at checkout to get a free month trial. Once you’re signed up, download the Stitcher app on Android or iOS, and you can start enjoying new episodes of the AOM podcast ad-free.

And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate if you’d take one minute to give us a review in Apple Podcasts or Stitcher. It helps out a lot. If you’ve done that already, thank you, please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you think would get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay, reminding you to not only listen to the AOM podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.

 

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