Forget the notion that workouts are all work and no play, says research psychologist Kelly McGonigal, PhD, a Stanford University lecturer and author of The Joy of Movement: How Exercise Helps Us Find Happiness, Hope, Connection, and Courage. There’s ample evidence from multiple studies that exercise — even in small doses — can boost your mood.
In fact, researchers have a not-so-technical name for it: the feel-better effect. “Human beings are hardwired to take pleasure in the activities, experiences, and mental states that help us survive,” McGonigal explains. “These instincts are buried in our DNA and spring to life in each of us, as fundamental to our survival as the abilities to breathe, digest food, and pump blood to our muscles.”
In her book, she offers research-backed ways to find joy in exercise.
1. Get outside.
Exercise in your backyard, at a park, or anywhere that gives you a dose of nature. Since we evolved outdoors, we’re forever connected to nature, McGonigal writes. “Being active outdoors can help us tap into the human capacity for mindfulness, as well as the transcendence of being connected to something bigger than ourselves.”
2. Groove with others.
Whether you work out with one friend or in a class, “human happiness flourishes in community,” she notes. “Throughout human history, movement — whether labor, ritual, or play — has helped us to connect, collaborate, and celebrate.”
3. Make it fun.
Find the joy in play, challenges, or competition. Tackling obstacles as a team brings out a different side of participants, she explains.
4. Move to music.
Listen to music and you almost can’t help but dance. “The brain seems to be hardwired to hear music as an invitation to move,” McGonigal writes.
This article originally appeared as “The Joyous Workout” in the November 2022 issue of Experience Life.