Move for a Happier Mind
Anyone who has experienced a runner’s high, a pandemic afternoon walk, or a heart-pumping Zumba class knows how energizing exercise can be. Why do these benefits exist?
In Move!, Caroline Williams offers an answer.: The New Science of Body Over Mind is deeper and more provocative than just endorphins, and it highlights how our bodies and minds are interconnected in ways we may not even realize.
As Williams explains, our bodies constantly process signals from the world and adjust to keep us healthy, drawing on the work of neuroscientist Antonio Damasio. At the same time, they send signals to the brain.
If our body is communicating to our brain that we are sedentary or weak, that might create underlying feelings of depression or anxiety, insecurity or uncertainty. On the flipside, moving and building strength could create positive changes in our bodily systems that, when passed along to the brain, give us a subtle sense of happiness, confidence, and positivity.
Williams’s book provides an overview of the many ways that moving our bodies can influence our brains for the better—and she offers tips for incorporating mood-boosting, mind-nourishing movement into our busy lives.
How movement helps our minds
First, the bad news: Sitting may be “the new smoking,” but the health ills of a sedentary lifestyle extend beyond physical well-being. We also seem to suffer from mental health issues if we don’t move. People with sedentary lifestyles, for instance, are more likely to suffer from anxiety and depression.
The big brain evolved partly to help us move, explains Williams. Our ancestors used movement to escape danger and seek food and rewards. Back when we were still swinging from tree branches, evolutionary anthropologists believe that we developed the ability to think into the future because we needed to plan our movements.
As a result, when our brain does not oversee movement, we suffer. When we’re less active, our brains actually lose cells from the hippocampus, reducing their capacity.
“Moving shapes how we think and feel,” Williams writes. “When we stay still, our cognitive and emotional abilities are seriously compromised.”
In the meantime, movement has well-documented emotional benefits. Strength training, for instance, can boost self-esteem and self-worth, reduce depression and anxiety, and improve emotional stability. Muscular strength may translate unconsciously to a sense of strength and confidence in the world, because they are signaled to our brains unconsciously.
“Having the physical skills to get out of sticky situations makes a big difference in how mentally capable and emotionally resilient we feel as we battle our way through life,” writes Williams.
We feel more distant from our pasts when we walk or run distances, just as covering distances makes us feel like we are moving forward in life.
Another powerful form of movement is dancing. Dancing to music releases dopamine which can help reduce stress hormones, and increase feel-good serotonin. We’re also more aware of our emotions when we dance. When we groove or waltz, we can break up rigid emotional patterns and find new ways of thinking, feeling, and coping.
Even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) seems to be improved by exercise. Resistance training and yoga can both alleviate PTSD symptoms, and adding a physical component to therapy makes it more effective for veterans and others suffering from complex PTSD.
Physical activity tends to give you a greater sense of control over your life. In some studies, movement has even been shown to help resolve conflicts with others.
“The truth is that brain, body, and mind are part of the same beautiful system,” writes Williams. “And the whole thing works better when it’s on the move.”