Movement and exercise feel good, as you know if you’ve ever experienced a runner’s high, the restorative power of a pandemic afternoon walk, or a heart-pumping Zumba class. But what accounts for these benefits?
The answer offered by science journalist Caroline Williams in Move!: 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.
Drawing on the work of neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, Williams explains that our bodies are constantly processing signals from the world and making adjustments to keep us healthy. At the same time, they’re sending signals to the brain about the state of our bodies. As she writes:
The unconscious messages coming from the body provide not only the basis for the self but also a kind of undercurrent to our consciousness that sets the mood for everything else that happens. These ‘background feelings,’ as [Damasio] calls them, act a bit like the soundtrack of a film: They have the power to make us feel happy, sad, hopeful, or on edge, for reasons that we can’t quite put our finger on.
In other words, while we may not recognize it, our moods and feelings have a lot to do with how our bodies are functioning—and that’s where movement comes in.
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
But first, the bad news: Sitting may be “the new smoking,” but the ills of a sedentary lifestyle aren’t just for our physical health. Our mental health seems to suffer when we don’t move, as well. For example, people with more sedentary lifestyles have a greater risk for anxiety and depression, as well as lower self-esteem.
Our big brains evolved partly to help us move, explains Williams. For our ancestors, movement meant the ability to run away from danger and run toward food and reward. In fact, one evolutionary anthropologist theorizes that we developed the capacity to think into the future because we needed to plan our movements, back when we were still swinging from tree branches.
So when our brain has no movement to oversee, we suffer. In fact, our brains actually reduce capacity when we’re more inactive, removing cells from areas like the hippocampus.
“Moving is at the heart of the way we think and feel,” Williams writes. “If we stay still, our cognitive and emotional abilities become seriously compromised.”
Meanwhile, the emotional benefits of movement are well-documented. For example, strength training can boost our self-esteem and self-worth, reduce depression and anxiety, and make us feel more capable of meeting emotional challenges. In other words, the strength in our muscles—signaled unconsciously to our brains—may translate to a sense of strength and confidence in the world.
“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.
Similarly, covering distances as we walk or run could give us a sense of moving forward in life—and, in fact, walking does make us feel more distant from our pasts.
Dancing is another potent form of movement. Dancing to music releases dopamine, and dance therapy can help teen girls with depression improve their emotional health, reduce stress hormones, and increase feel-good serotonin. Dancing also makes us more aware of our own emotions. The mind-body connection here? Finding new and creative ways to move our bodies as we groove or waltz may help break up rigid emotional patterns and allow us to find new ways of thinking, feeling, and coping.
Exercise even seems to help budge post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Research suggests that resistance training and yoga can both alleviate PTSD symptoms, and that adding a physical component to therapy makes it more effective for veterans and others with complex PTSD.
In general, the more physical activity you do, the more you’ll tend to have a sense of control over your life. (There’s even some research suggesting that movement can help resolve conflicts with other people.)
“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.”
How to add more movement to your life
Luckily, since our bodies are designed to move and all, we don’t need much guidance on how to be more active. But in her book, Williams offers some ideas for different ways of moving that have different kinds of mental health and cognitive benefits.
In addition to strength training, walking, and running, we can try synchronized movements like tai chi and group exercise to tap into feelings of connection with others. Moving to music can also create that sense of connection and allow us to get lost in the rhythm and disconnect from rumination.
We might also try out what some call “functional movements,” or exercises like jumping and climbing that mimic the way we would move if we were surviving in the wild. Obstacle course races or swimming in nature can be a fun opportunity to conquer physical challenges.
Moving more doesn’t require going to the gym every day (or at all). It’s more a matter of incorporating movement into our daily lives, says Williams. If your job is sedentary, she suggests getting up to move every half an hour. You can do a little gardening, go for a walk, or just have a “movement snack”—a couple minutes of walking like a crab or balancing on one leg. It sounds silly, but what could be sillier than sitting with our butt in a chair for eight hours straight?
With all these benefits in mind, Williams argues that we could do more as a society to acknowledge the importance of movement. That might mean prioritizing recess and PE classes, which more and more U.S. schools are cutting. Elders need encouragement and fitness classes designed for them, not a culture that surrenders to the inevitability of frailty in old age. And Williams would like to see more practitioners incorporating movement and body-based modalities into therapy.
Maybe then more of us would grow up to be adults who move not to burn calories or get our steps in, but just because it feels good for our bodies to do what they’re meant to do.