2 Sentence Summary
The Joy of Movement by Kelly McGonigal examines the numerous benefits of regular exercise, including increased happiness and improved mental and physical health. The book uses research, personal anecdotes, and quotes to encourage readers to embrace the joy of movement.
Summary Read Time: Less than 5 minutes
Actual Book Length: 272
First Published in: 2019
Below is the detailed yet quick summary of the book:
Chapter 1 – The high we feel from physical exercise is an olden mechanism assisting us to flourish, endure, and socialize.
The “runner’s high” is the feeling of bliss and elation that can occur after prolonged periods of jogging. This phenomenon has been described as early as 1885 and has been compared to a spiritual experience, being in love, and the effects of mind-altering drugs. From a neurological perspective, the runner’s high is related to the effects of cannabis on the brain.
Studies have shown that long-term running increases levels of endocannabinoids in the brain. This mimic the effects of cannabis and are known for reducing pain, improving mood, and activating other feel-good neurotransmitters. Endocannabinoids also help protect against anxiety and depression.
The latest theory on the runner’s high traces it back to our earliest ancestors. It is likely that the persistence high evolved to keep us hunting and gathering for longer periods of time makes us more likely to find food and survive. The increased willingness to cooperate and share after physical exertion could have had an evolutionary benefit by making hunters more likely to share their spoils with the tribe.
Chapter 2 – The brain of humans can get addicted to working out but with much more positive results.
Exercise can be addictive in the same way as drugs like cocaine and heroin. This is because it triggers the brain’s reward system, resulting in the production of feel-good chemicals. Some examples of such chemicals are endocannabinoids, dopamine, endorphins, and noradrenaline. When researchers began studying the phenomenon of “exercise dependence” in the late 1960s, they had difficulty getting normal exercisers to understand what would happen if they stopped exercising for a while. If they did sign up, participants often cheated and lied about whether they had exercised.
The symptoms of exercise addiction are similar to those of other addictions. For example, not exercising for a day can cause anxiety and anger in self-described workout addicts. After several days of not exercising, they may experience insomnia and depression. Their brains show the same attentional bias as other addicts, reacting to images of people exercising in the same way that a smoker’s brain would react to images of cigarettes.
Consistent exercise gradually changes the chemical makeup of the brain in the same way that chemical drugs do. However, unlike chemical drugs, consistent exercise makes you more sensitive to its positive effects. This is because exercise increases the receptors for endocannabinoids in the brain and makes dopamine cells more receptive. This is why, unlike drugs, the more you exercise, the better you feel about exercising.
Chapter 3 – Human brains are wired to enjoy synchronized physical activity.
Many current workout trends involve synchronizing movement and incorporating a sense of community. For example, Tae Bo combines dance choreography with boxing, and SoulCycling adds a social, almost spiritual, aspect to indoor cycling. Humans have been coming together to move in unison since the beginning of history, in social, religious, and pagan ceremonies, as well as in group exercise classes.
Moving in unison seems to make people feel more connected to each other and to something greater than themselves. French sociologist Émile Durkheim referred to the joy that people can experience from moving together as “collective effervescence.”
Synchrony appears to be key in creating this sense of collective joy. In fact, synchronizing exercise with other people seems to be a fundamental human reflex. For example, when we are close to someone, our heartbeats, breathing, and brain activity tend to automatically align. We are also better at synchronizing with someone else’s slightly irregular beat than with a perfect computer-generated rhythm.
Chapter 4 – Music is a performance-enhancing medication.
In 1988, when Haile Gebrselassie from Ethiopia broke the world record for the 2000 meter race at a US running event, he may have been on a performance-enhancing drug. Earlier that day, Gebrselassie had convinced event organizers to play his favorite song, “Scatman,” during the race. When he heard the upbeat melody over the stadium speakers, Gebrselassie was able to run faster than he ever had before.
The power of music to push us beyond our physical limits cannot be overstated. Musicologists have long referred to music as ergogenic, or work-enhancing, and science is starting to provide evidence to support this claim. A recent study found that people who listen to music while working out use less oxygen than those who don’t. In addition, even patients with high blood pressure can last 51 seconds longer during a cardiovascular stress test when they are allowed to run on the treadmill to their favorite songs.
Our innate desire to dance to music has also led to medical miracles. Oliver Sacks loved to tell the story of a woman whose leg was paralyzed after a severe bone fracture. Doctors thought that the connection between her leg muscles and her spinal cord had been completely severed. But when she listened to her favorite Irish jig, her foot started tapping unexpectedly. The woman was able to walk again through music therapy, accessing muscle memory.
Chapter 5 – Exercise can fundamentally change our self-perception.
Providing people with a sense of control is key to turning fear into bravery. In an experiment, when rats are shocked by researchers with no control over when or how long the shocks are given, they become helpless, anxious, and depressed. However, when they are given the power to switch off the shocks by turning a wheel, they learn to do so bravely, and become more resilient to future stress.
Human beings also grow through challenges. DPI Adaptive Fitness in Fairfax, Virginia, is a gym that focuses on training people with physical disabilities or limitations. When trainees first arrive, their trainer encourages them to set a very high goal for themselves that they may think they can never achieve.
For example, when Joana Bonilla came to DPI, she had recently lost her legs due to autoimmune disease lupus. She wanted to drive again. She and her trainer set the goal of being able to throw 100 punches in 30 seconds. This would help her develop enough upper body strength to lift herself out of her wheelchair and into a car. Within just three months of training, Joana achieved her goal, and a few weeks later, she bought a new car.
Because the body is constantly sending feedback to the brain, learning a difficult, seemingly impossible physical challenge can actually change our sense of self. For instance, performing a strength feat sends a message to the brain that we are strong. In this way, a workout can challenge even our most deeply held beliefs about ourselves, as many DPI trainees can attest.
Chapter 6 – Exercising in nature can have even better results.
Nature has the power to make us feel wonder and awe, give us a sense of belonging, and increase our alertness. When combined with physical activity, it has a major positive impact on our mental health. For example, within just five minutes of “green exercise,” people report significant improvements in their mood and outlook.
The reason for this is that the human brain evolved over a long period of time. Most of which was spent outdoors engaging in activities like running, walking, and foraging for food. Brain scans show that our default brain state is different outdoors than it is indoors. Indoors, where Americans now spend an average of 93 percent of their time, our default state shows activation in the brain areas responsible for memory, language, and social interaction, and tends slightly toward negativity – which is why we are more likely to engage in rumination, self-criticism, or worry indoors.
However, when we are in nature, our default brain state more closely resembles the calm, disengaged state achieved by experienced meditators. We experience less anxiety, are more aware of our surroundings, and slip into a state that researchers call “soft fascination.”
Chapter 7 – Enduring physical hardships trains mental strength.
The number of Americans who have completed ultramarathons – marathons lasting over six hours – has increased from 650 in 1980 to 79,000 in 2017.
Shawn Bearden, host of a popular podcast on ultrarunning, says that endurance sports helped him overcome depression. Training his body to endure extreme physical hardship has taught him mental strength that he uses in other parts of his life. Exercising at high intensity and volume, like ultrarunners do, can stimulate intense bursts of myokine release. Even an hour of biking can release about 35 different myokines into the bloodstream.