The Benefits of Daily Movement
In this excerpt from his new book ‘The Practice of Groundedness,’ our Do It Better columnist Brad Stulberg explains how ritualizing exercise benefits your brain and body
In the 1640s, French philosopher René Descartes introduced what came to be known as Cartesian dualism, or the idea that although materially connected, the mind and body are separate entities. This thinking dominated for more than 350 years. It wasn’t until the turn of the twenty-first century that scientists began to prove that Descartes was mistaken: we do not have a distinct mind and body. Rather, we are an integrated mind-body system.
The bacteria in our guts and the proteins secreted by our muscles affect our moods. The neurochemicals in our brains affect how much pain we feel in our backs and how fast our hearts beat. When we move our bodies regularly we do a better job of controlling our emotions, we think more creatively, and we retain more information.
Numerous studies have demonstrated that exercise improves not only physical health but also mental health. A 2019 analysis out of King’s College in London examined more than 40 studies that collectively followed 267,000 people to explore the connection between exercise and depression. The researchers found that regular physical activity reduced the chances that someone would experience depression by between 17 and 41 percent, a substantial effect that was observed regardless of age and gender, and that held true across various types of movement, from running to lifting weights. Other research has found similar effects for anxiety.
Movement doesn’t just help prevent mental illness; it can also treat it. In addition to their large study on prevention, the King’s College researchers conducted a review of 25 studies that surveyed a total of 1,487 people who were currently experiencing depression. They found that between 40 and 50 percent of people with depression respond positively to exercise, with an effect that, on a scale of small, medium, or large, is considered large. Researchers from the University of Limerick in Ireland conducted their own analysis that included 922 participants and found a similar response rate for anxiety. These rates are on par with psychotherapy and medication. (It is important to note that exercise is not a panacea for mental health issues. While exercise can and often does help, this is not always the case for everyone. Seek professional help if needed.)
Here’s what daily movement can do for you.
When I began training for marathons, a more experienced runner offered some words of wisdom: I would need to learn how to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. This skill is every bit as helpful off the road as it is on it.
It’s not just me, and it’s not just running. Ask anyone whose day regularly includes pushing their bodies and they’ll likely tell you the same: a difficult conversation doesn’t seem so difficult anymore. A tight deadline, not so intimidating. Relationship problems, not so problematic. While it’s plausible to think that exercise simply makes you too tired to care, that’s not the case. Research shows that if anything, physical activity has the opposite effect, boosting brain function and energy. The more likely scenario is that pushing your body teaches you to experience pain, discomfort, and fatigue and accept it instead of immediately reacting to it or resisting it.
Evelyn Stevens, the women’s record holder for most miles cycled in an hour (29.81), says that during her hardest training intervals, “instead of thinking ‘I want this to be over,’ I try to feel and sit with the pain. Heck, I even try to embrace it.” Physical activity teaches you how to accept something for what it is, see it clearly, and then decide what to do next.
Students who ran twice a week showed more favorable heart-rate variability. Their bodies literally were not as stressed during tests.
But this doesn’t just apply to elite athletes. A study published in the British Journal of Health Psychology found that college students who went from not exercising at all to even a modest program of two to three gym visits per week reported a decrease in stress, smoking, and alcohol and caffeine consumption, plus an increase in healthy eating, better spending practices, and improved study habits. In addition to these real-life improvements, after two months of regular exercise, the students also performed better on laboratory tests of self-control. This led the researchers to speculate that exercise had a powerful impact on the students’ “capacity for self-regulation.”
Another study, this one published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology, evaluated how exercise changes our physiological response to stress. Researchers at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, in Germany, divided students into two groups at the beginning of the semester and instructed half to run twice a week for 20 weeks. At the end of the 20 weeks, which coincided with a particularly stressful time for the students—exams—the researchers had them wear monitors throughout their day-to-day activities to measure their heart-rate variability, which is a common indicator of physiological stress. As you might expect, the students who were enrolled in the running program showed more favorable heart-rate variability. Their bodies literally were not as stressed during tests.
What’s encouraging about these studies is that the subjects weren’t exercising at crazy intensities or volumes. They were simply doing something that was physically challenging for them—going from no exercise to some exercise.
A common way for people to experience flow is through physical activity. The heightened sensations in your body provide an anchor for your awareness, and the increased arousal helps channel your mind. For this to occur, however, you need to leave the digital devices behind (or at least turn them on airplane mode if you are going to use them for music). For exercisers to experience flow, they must “keep their minds into what they are doing,” writes Prikko Markula, a professor of physical activity at the University of Alberta in Canada.
When I work with coaching clients on incorporating movement into their lives, we explicitly use it as an opportunity to experience distraction-free time. Many realize a big reason why they’ve come to enjoy exercising is precisely because they aren’t constantly being pinged by calls, emails, or texts. The more they have this kind of distraction-free experience, the more they start to prioritize and protect presence in other areas of their lives. This parallels a theory put forth by the author and habit expert Charles Duhigg: movement is a “keystone habit,” or positive practice in one area of life that brings about positive changes in others.
Movement also develops presence because it demands you pay close attention to the signals your body is sending. Do I speed up or slow down? Is this merely the pain of arduous exertion, or is this the pain of a looming injury? Since you receive rather concrete feedback on these decisions, you can continually refine your process. Keep doing this and your ability to pay close attention—not just as it relates to your body, but to all of life—improves.
I’ve had the privilege of getting to know some of the top athletes in the world. What’s interesting is that they all use different strategies to build fitness. Some follow a high-intensity, low-volume approach; others, the opposite. Some train using heart-rate zones, while others use perceived exertion. And yet they’ve all told me that the key to training success isn’t so much the plan, but whether or not they stick to it.
The key to improving physical fitness lies in adhering to a concept called progressive overload. You work a specific muscle or function in a specific manner, progressively adding intensity and duration over time. Hard days are followed by easy days. Prolonged periods of intensity are followed by periods of recovery. Repetition and consistency are key. Results don’t occur overnight but after months, and even years. If you rush the process or try to do too much too soon, your chances of injury and overtraining increase. There is no escaping or denying this. Your body simply lets you know. You learn patience viscerally, in your tendons and bones.
“Today, everyone desires novelty and endless stimulation,” explains Vern Gambetta, a world-renowned, “old-timer” athletic development coach who has trained hundreds of elite athletes, including members of the New York Mets and Chicago Bulls, as well as numerous Olympians. “Running around and constantly switching what you are doing from one day to the next is in vogue.” But if what you’re after is long-term growth and development, he says, speed and switching just don’t work. Physical progress requires playing the long game.
A regular movement practice teaches you that breakthroughs do not happen overnight. They result from consistent effort applied over a long duration, from gradually pounding the stone in a smart and controlled manner until one day it breaks. Improvement in fitness requires being patient and present in the process, stopping one rep short today so that you can pick up where you left off tomorrow.
If you choose to challenge yourself in any kind of physical practice, there will be occasions when you fail. Trying to run or walk faster, lift more weight, or cycle farther than you ever have before can be at least mildly intimidating. You are facing all sorts of unknowns. How much discomfort will this cause? Will I be able to push through? Will I quit too early? Will I succeed or fail?
Whenever I attempt a big lift in the gym, sensing my fear, my training partner Justin often utters the words “brave new world.” Regardless of the outcome, I am practicing the art of facing vulnerabilities with courage, of learning to trust myself in challenging situations. And when I fail, sometimes in front of other people, I learn to be OK with that, too. A regular movement practice exposes where you are weak and teaches you not to run away from those areas but to turn toward them instead. The more you confront your weaknesses the stronger and more integrated you become, in the most literal sense.
In the weight room it is just you and the bar. You either make the lift or you don’t. If you make it, great. If not, you train more and try again. Some days it goes well; other days it doesn’t. But over time, it becomes clear that what you get out of yourself is proportional to the effort you put in, and to your willingness to expose yourself to ever-increasing trials and sometimes come up short. It’s as simple and as hard as that. You develop a kind of vulnerability, straightforwardness, and self-reliance that gives rise to a quiet and secure confidence. You learn to trust yourself and take risks in the presence of others, which is precisely how you forge more intimate bonds in your movement community.
A growing body of research shows that exercising with other people promotes connection and belonging, or what we’ve been calling deep community. In her book The Joy of Movement, health psychologist and Stanford lecturer Kelly McGonigal details the many reasons this is the case. There is the collective joy our species is hardwired to feel when we move in synchrony with others, a phenomenon that at first was an evolutionary advantage that promoted cooperation during hunting. There is the release of neurochemicals such as endorphins and oxytocin, which promote affection and bonding. There is the ritualistic nature intrinsic to many exercise programs, leading to a sensation scientists call identity fusion—feeling connected to and part of something larger than oneself. And there is the shared confidence, vulnerability, and trust that emerges from undertaking physical challenges with others.
“We crave this feeling of connection,” says McGonigal, “and synchronized movement is one of the most powerful ways to experience it.” She writes that outsiders often fail to understand the social effects of movement. “Like any nature-harnessing phenomenon, it doesn’t make sense until you’re in the middle of it. Then suddenly, endorphins flowing and heart pounding, you find [the kind of belonging that exercise gives rise to] the most reasonable thing in the world.”
I’ve come to know this firsthand. Rarely have I regretted the additional effort it takes to coordinate schedules in order to run, hike, or lift weights with others. The short-term effect is that I always feel better afterward. The long-term effect is that some of my best friends are people whom I first met in the gym or on the trail.
This was excerpted from The Practice of Groundedness, by Brad Stulberg. It is available wherever books are sold.