Hope Molecules

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In The Joy of Movement, Dr. Kelly McGonigal tells us:

“One of the first things I discovered is that the most common explanation of why exercise makes us happy is far too simplistic. The psychological effects of movement cannot be reduced to an endorphin rush. Physical activity influences many other brain chemicals, including those that give you energy, alleviate worry, and help you bond with others. It reduces inflammation in the brain, which over time can protect against depression, anxiety, and loneliness. Regular exercise also remodels the physical structure of your brain to make you more receptive to joy and social connection. These neurological changes rival those observed in the most cutting-edge treatments for both depression and addiction. The mind-altering effects of exercise are even embedded in your musculature.

During physical activity, muscles secrete hormones into your bloodstream that make your brain more resilient to stress. Scientists call them ‘hope molecules.’ Looking at the evidence, it’s hard not to conclude that our entire physiology was engineered to reward us for moving. But why would human biology be so finely tuned to encourage us to be active? A reasonable first guess might have to do with the health benefits of exercise. Perhaps the brain is looking out for the body, making sure we stay active enough to ward off a heart attack. Yet this notion takes too brief a historical perspective on the value of physical activity to human survival. Your doctor might encourage you to exercise to better control your blood sugar, lower your blood pressure, or reduce your risk of cancer. But for most of human existence, the central purpose of movement was not to prevent disease. Physical activity was how we engaged with life.

As neuroscientist Daniel Wolpert writes, ‘The entire purpose of the human brain is to produce movement. Movement is the only way we have of interacting with the world.’ This is why our biology includes so many ways to reward moving. At the most fundamental level, rewarding movement is how your brain and body encourage you to participate in life. If you are willing to move, your muscles will give you hope. Your brain will orchestrate pleasure. And your entire physiology will adjust to help you find the energy, purpose, and courage to keep going.

Wow! During physical activity, muscles secrete hormones into your bloodstream that make you more resilient to stress. Scientist call them hope molecules. Our bodies were engineered to reward us for moving so let’s get moving.

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Hope Molecules
Episode 11