Our guest today is Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., and author of The Joy of Movement. Kelly is a health psychologist at Stanford whose Ted Talk on stress has over 22 million views. The Joy Of Movement is an exceptional book that blends the science behind the psychological benefits of exercise and physical activity with compelling stories of how exercise has helped people overcome challenges and thrive. It’s a great time of year to (carefully) start or resume working out and this book has inspiring messages that will get you moving. You’ll find this book to be helpful for people of any age and any level of fitness, including exercise for seniors.
Our Conversation with Kelly McGonigal
We talk with Kelly about:
- Her personal story with exercise and the role it plays in her life
- How movement affects our moods
- How movement can bring out the best version of ourselves – and a braver version of ourselves
- The social side of movement and exercise
- How the people she interviewed for her new book showed her how exercise, hope, and courage are connected
- The mind-body connection – and what a rock-climbing experience taught her about overcoming fear
- The story of her grandparents and the role of music and movement in their lives
- Her advice if you want to start exercising, resume exercising or take it up a notch
Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., is a health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University, and a leading expert in the new field of “science-help.” She is passionate about translating cutting-edge research from psychology, neuroscience, and medicine into practical strategies for health, happiness, and personal success. Kelly’s latest book is The Joy of Movement: How Exercise Helps Us Find Happiness, Hope, Connection, and Courage.
She is also the author of The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It (Penguin 2012), which explores the latest research on motivation, temptation, and procrastination, as well as what it takes to transform habits, persevere at challenges, and make a successful change. Her audio series The Neuroscience of Change (Sounds True 2012) weaves the newest findings of science with Eastern contemplative wisdom to give listeners a revolutionary process for personal transformation. She is also the author of Yoga for Pain Relief: Simple Practices to Calm Your Mind and Heal Your Pain (New Harbinger, 2009), which translates recent advances in neuroscience and medicine into mind-body strategies for relieving chronic pain, stress, depression, and anxiety.
She teaches for a wide range of programs at Stanford University, including the Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, the Graduate School of Business, and the School of Medicine’s Health Improvement Program. She has received a number of teaching awards for her undergraduate psychology courses, including Stanford University’s highest teaching honor, the Walter J. Gores award. Her popular public courses through Stanford’s Continuing Studies program—including the Science of Willpower and the Science of Compassion—demonstrate the applications of psychological science to personal health and happiness, as well as organizational success and social change. Through a wide range of conferences, workshops, university-affiliated programs, and consulting, Dr. McGonigal also provides continuing education and training to executives, teachers, healthcare providers, and other professionals.
Her psychology research (on compassion, mindfulness, and emotion regulation) has been published in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Motivation and Emotion, The International Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine, and The Journal of Happiness Studies. From 2005-2012, Dr. McGonigal served as the Editor in Chief of the International Journal of Yoga Therapy, a peer-reviewed journal of mind-body research, healthcare policy, and clinical practice. A long-time practitioner of yoga and meditation, Dr. McGonigal is a founding member of the Yoga Service Council and serves on the advisory boards of several non-profit organizations bringing yoga and meditation to underserved and at-risk populations, including Yoga Bear (providing yoga in hospitals nationwide and to cancer survivors and their caregivers) and The Art of Yoga Project (bringing yoga into juvenile detention facilities in the San Francisco Bay Area).
Dr. McGonigal’s work has been covered widely by the media, including the CBS Evening News, U.S. News and World Report, CNN.com, O! The Oprah Magazine, Time magazine, USA Today, and the American Psychological Association’s Monitor on Psychology. She is also a frequent source of expert advice and commentary for media outlets such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, MSNBC.com, Web MD, Time, Fitness, Women’s Health, and more. In 2010, Forbes named her one of the 20 most inspiring women to follow on Twitter. In 2012, she teamed up with the Oprah Winfrey Network and Superbetter Labs to create an online game that would spread the benefits of gratitude to millions of people worldwide.
Dr. McGonigal received her Ph.D. in psychology from Stanford University, with a concentration in humanistic medicine. She received a B.A. in Psychology and a B.S. in Mass Communication from Boston University.
She is also passionate about the benefits of physical exercise and has been certified as a group fitness instructor since 2000. In her free time, she continues to teach group fitness classes – because sometimes moving, breathing, and sweating is the best thing you can do to create health, joy, and resilience.
On the Psychological Benefits of Exercise
“So a lot of the stuff that’s happening inside of you that causes suffering, it basically recedes. And things that make us feel good – whether it’s hope, whether it’s confidence, whether it’s feeling connected to others, all the stuff going on in our brains that give us a sense of pleasure or joy – that becomes enhanced. And people describe that – sometimes even to a degree of feeling euphoric – when they exercise. And sometimes it’s more subtle where you start out your workout feeling stressed out, maybe feeling a little isolated, and at that 20-minute mark, Man, your body feels like you’re in the zone. With whatever movement you’re doing, it physically feels better and you just suddenly feel so much more optimistic about your capability to handle what’s going on in your life. You feel more connected to the people in your life. Everything just seems better. That’s the main psychological effect.”
On the Exercise High and The Joy of Movement
“We even now know what’s going on in the brain that’s probably causing that. And that is the effort that you are engaged in basically convinces your brain to release brain chemicals like endocannabinoids and endorphins and dopamine that make you feel good. And also that sort of nudges you in the direction of being a braver version of yourself, more willing to persist and do difficult things in order to reach meaningful goals – and also a more social version of yourself. So, particularly endocannabinoids and endorphins – they’re social bonding brain chemicals. And when their levels are higher in your brain, you find it easier to reach out to others. You find it more pleasurable to spend time with others. Other people’s jokes are funnier. It feels better to get a high five or a hug. It feels like you get more of a warm glow if you cooperate with other people. And so this is part of what an exercise high does to you.”
On the Social Benefits of Exercise
“One of the things I’m fascinated by is that there’s almost no wrong way to move in order to get the psychological benefits. And yet when I talk to people about movement, I just kept hearing over and over how important the social relationships were that they were forming in communities of movement, even among people who are doing what seemed like solo activities, like running, for example. So maybe it’s your local gym where you join a walking group or a recreational sports club where you go to a dance class. In these places there’s something about moving together with other people that creates a type of bond and friendship that’s hard to find in other places.”
“And we know part of this is again, neurobiology and we know that when you move with other people, that shared endorphin rush that you get, it makes you enjoy the workout more for many people, but also that shared endorphin rush is one of the main ways that people bond.”
On Where to Start
“Well, first, I would say you have to move away from the motivations that a lot of other people try to force on us. Like the idea that you have to find a form of exercise that will burn the most calories or be the most efficient for warding off heart disease. Not that any of that stuff isn’t good for you, but you have a very different experience of movement and you’ll be more likely to stay with it. Start from a place of asking yourself, what would bring me joy or what would be meaningful? And so you can pair movement with other things that already bring you joy. And we know that movement will enhance the joy you get from them. So if you love your dog, go for a walk with your dog or play with your dog in the park or the backyard.”
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