How Positive Emotions Supercharge the Effects of Exercise

Every Tuesday and Thursday at 9 a.m. at a community center in Palo Alto, Calif., Debby Fife, who’s in her late-70s, gets down with an eclectic cadre of fellow fitness seekers. The beats are up-tempo and funky. The moves are dynamic and fun. Sometimes the class throws jabs and crosses; other times the group gyrates to a salsa beat. Ballet and old-school calisthenics show up as well.

Pulses pound, muscles flex, sweat flies, and a joyous, can-do spirit prevails — even among students over 90. No one is suffering. No one is straining. More than a workout, the class feels like a celebration: of life, of movement, of vitality.

Having come to exercise later in life, Fife now arranges her schedule around these classes. “It’s as important in my life as anything I do,” she says. “After class, what hurts the most is the muscles of my face: I’m smiling the whole time.”

Leading the class — and several others like it around town — is health psychologist Kelly McGonigal, PhD, author of The Joy of Movement: How Exercise Helps Us Find Happiness, Hope, Connection, and Courage.

To hear McGonigal tell it, many of us are taking an approach to exercise that’s too narrow in scope. “We have all been trained to view movement and exercise as transactional,” she explains. “Culturally, there’s such a tight association between movement and trying to ‘fix’ the body that it leads to experiences that make it harder to connect to the direct joys of movement.”

In other words, the borderline obsession with the side effects of exercise may reduce our innate capacity to revel in movement for its own sake. That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with pursuing long-term performance, function, or aesthetic goals. But hyperfocusing on only the end goal “leads people to pick activities that they don’t enjoy and aren’t meaningful to them,” McGonigal says.

These hyperfocusers exercise dutifully — even through boredom, frustration, exhaustion, and pain — but don’t enjoy it. And sooner or later, they quit. By ignoring the opportunity for joy, they may abandon long-term goals too.

For many of us, this negative-­feedback loop surrounding exer­cise began when we were young. “­Coaches and gym teachers often dole out pushups and running laps as punishment for mistakes or missed practices,” says Jolie Kobrinsky, Steel Mace Vinyasa, CST, TACFIT, owner of Elektren ­Studio in Seaside, Calif.

And many of us maintain that perspective long after our gym-class days are over. “You see it all the time,” Kobrinsky continues. “People putting in longer, harder workouts the day after they have a rich ­dessert or spend time on the couch.”

In this formulation, exercise is anything but joyful.

McGonigal, Kobrinsky, and other forward-thinking fitness professionals encourage a different approach, one that views exercise as a path to joy. And that joy, in turn, makes the exercise more effective and sustainable — helping folks reach their fitness goals more easily.

The Stuff of Joy

a senior man works with his partner during a boxing workout

Joyful movement may conjure images of contemplative yoga sessions, easy dancing, or meditative strolls — activities that don’t typically result in sore muscles or a pounding heart. And, on some days, this kind of restorative movement is just what you need. Easy, yin-style exercise, and even nonexercise movement like gardening and housework, can lift mood, improve circulation and metabolism, and increase feelings of efficacy — especially if you do them outdoors and with others. You almost can’t overdo this kind of movement.

But joyful movement isn’t always synonymous with easy movement. McGonigal is quick to point out that strenuous, yang-style activity can evoke joy just as powerfully. “Joy is bigger than enjoyment, and it’s bigger than pleasure,” she says. “And it might well include exercise experiences that are incredibly uncomfortable and difficult.”

Climbing a mountain, for example, might require hours, or even days, of discomfort: exposure to cold, vertiginous drops, dangerous wildlife, and bad weather. But anyone who has made such a climb will tell you that such obstacles make the trek more satisfying, because they force us to confront, and then overcome, fears and perceived limits.

The same can be said of closer-to-home activities like lifting weights or sweating through an intense indoor-cycling class. Under some circumstances, joy can even encompass experiences almost universally considered unpleasant.

“Sometimes when I spar with my advanced students, I’ll get tagged with a kick or a punch,” says martial arts instructor Stephen Schilling, founder of Wolf Tribe Martial Arts in Encino, Calif. “It’s kind of thrilling: They’re happy they scored a point. I’m happy they’re learning. I never get mad; I just say, ‘Good hit!’”

Joy can take many forms. Some­times it’s blissful and quiet, as in an energizing tai chi session; sometimes it’s wild and communal, as in an ­ecstatic modern-dance class.

Importantly, it doesn’t have to be the same thing all the time. “Sometimes I’m up for a lot of structure — sets, reps, struggle,” says Adriana Rizzolo, founder of Body Temple Church in Los Angeles and creator of the movement practice Body Temple Dance. “That kind of movement gets me in touch with strength, power, focus, commitment. But sometimes I need something more freeform, spontaneous, like dance or moving meditation.”

Your body fluctuates in its need to rev up or wind down, sometimes daily, explains Rizzolo. “The dance between structure and freedom is really important.” By paying attention to your body’s signals — energy levels, aches, stress, sleep quality, mood, motivation — you’ll stay engaged in your workout program and keep joy in the foreground.

4 Steps to Moving More Joyfully

1) Embrace your creativity.

To die-hard exercisers, a hard workout is the best part of the day. To the uninitiated, it can look like punishing labor. This apparent contradiction illustrates another important aspect of joyful movement: imagination.

a couple finishes a muddy buddy run

By broadening your perspective beyond the physical, you can see past temporary discomfort and reframe exercise as something meaningful and resonant. “Once, in the middle of a strength class I was teaching, I blurted out ‘Defend the village!’ to my students,” recalls Kobrinsky. “It was completely spontaneous, but they understood what I meant: Get tough, dig in — just like you would if you had to protect your loved ones.”

Suddenly, swinging a kettlebell or a steel mace was infused with importance. “When you push your physical limits, it’s an almost mythic feeling,” she adds. “You’re embodying some­thing primal — an ancient-warrior spirit that’s inside every one of us.”

Expressing power and aggression is generally discouraged in daily life, but it can be enormously satisfying in a safe environment — an expansion of psychological as well as physical limits.

“One of the things I like best about my job is teaching young girls to punch through boards,” says Schilling. “They light up. They realize that they’re strong, and they don’t have to be afraid.”

Expressing power and aggression is generally discouraged in daily life, but it can be enormously satisfying in a safe environment — an expansion of psychological as well as physical limits.

Equally rewarding, he notes, is teaching his male clients, some of whom harbor self-limiting beliefs around what it means to be masculine, to find fluidity and ease in their movements. “Guys can be super attached to showing strength and power. And that’s great, but it also makes them tense and slow. When they learn to relax, it’s instantly more fun for them — and it makes them better martial artists.”

People new to exercise might find the imaginative aspect hard to grasp, and McGonigal acknowledges that you can’t always see it happening from the outside. That’s why there is no real substitution for direct experience, especially with movements that might appear unusual, or even silly, at first.

“People thought indoor cycling was ridiculous,” she says of, essentially, a group of strangers pedaling bikes that go nowhere. “But when you do it, you immediately see that it’s about synchronizing with a group, moving to music, and overcoming the impulse to quit.”

That’s a profound experience to have in just 45 minutes. “If you haven’t had the experience,” she explains, “you might not get it.”

Challenging exercise isn’t the only form of movement that can be rife with meaning for its participants. Restorative yoga offers tranquility and balance. Walking your dog can help you express devotion and responsibility. Nature-based activities can give you perspective and hope.

Nearly every type of movement can connect you to something larger than yourself and give you a point of focus beyond the moments of boredom, discomfort, or awkwardness that can accompany workout sessions.

“Most of the students in my class are women in their 60s to their 90s,” says McGonigal. “They come to express their fabulousness, their fierceness, their sensuality, their creativity. Dance brings out a side of them they might not get to express in other environments.”

Rizzolo agrees. “Sometimes, if my students are feeling really blocked, I’ll have them lie on their backs, close their eyes, and just shake out.” She puts on music that’s wild, passionate, or emotional, and encourages students to move to it. “It gets them out of their heads.”

At the end of the evening, she says, having embodied dozens of different emotional states, they leave class elated and expanded.

2) Measure progress mindfully.

a woman holds warrior 2

Setting measurable goals and ­tracking training helps build self-knowledge and monitor workout ­efforts. A fitness tracker or workout log can help you chart your progress and stay motivated and accountable.

But setting goals and tracking progress can cut both ways. “If you are getting caught up in the numbers, you will begin to lose the joy that health and fitness can bring,” says David Freeman, Life Time’s national director of Alpha and chair of the company’s Inclusion Council.

According to McGonigal, the “­motivations that are most strongly linked with negative outcomes are weight goals and appearance goals.” When people focus too closely on their body image, she says, “they are less likely to enjoy exercise, less likely to stick with it, and less likely to experience any of the benefits, whether they’re physical, emotional, social.”

Tracking measures of physical performance and health — running times, lifting numbers, and personal bests — can be problematic too. “If you’ve had a heart attack and are trying to stay alive, those numbers can be motivating,” says McGonigal.

But body-fat percentage, resting heart rate, and other metabolic measures can become proxies for appearance goals and again lead you into dicey territory.

Committed gym-goers might wonder what that leaves to track. The answer, says McGonigal, is simple:

  • Do you enjoy it?
  • How happy and satisfied do you feel while doing your activity?
  • How about afterward? Does it light you up?

Building awareness of enjoyment may take time and practice, especially for exercisers new to the concept. Start by paying attention to how you feel. If you sense joy and satisfaction, you’re likely on the right track. If an activity doesn’t excite you, it may be a sign to try something different.

The only time that close tracking of performance makes sense, she argues, is if you’re a serious athlete training for a competition, or if you truly enjoy working with hard data.

Most people, however, can stand to be sparing with met­rics and instead focus on their personal why. Don’t be afraid to go deep in finding your purpose and the meaning that movement holds for you, advises Freeman. “It’s more than just hitting numbers or moving heavy weights. When you can clearly define the why behind exercise, you will enjoy the process so much more.”

This shift in focus, he says, will likely result in a lift in fitness.

“You won’t lose anything, because if you’re experiencing joy, you’re going to work harder, and you’re going to do it more often,” adds McGonigal. “The positive emotions that you experience from movement — whether it’s happiness, pleasure, confidence, connection — are good for your heart and good for your immune system. They make you better able to benefit from the stress of exercise.”

Adopting this self-compassionate approach is a simple but profound pivot: More joy, more progress.

3) Let yourself learn.

Adults tend to value learning only as far as it helps us achieve a long-term goal like improving a skill or making more money. “We forget that learning is itself a joy,” says McGonigal, “especially if you’re working with a coach and a community to master a new activity. That’s enormously pleasurable on its own.”

Yet we often fail to recognize that movement — as much as reading or studying — offers ample opportunity for learning.

“We’re still stuck on the idea that the body and mind are separate,” she explains. Consequently, we busy our minds watching TV or talking on the phone while our bodies churn away beneath us.

And while combining your workout with a news download may feel efficient, it also limits what you can experience or learn from your workout. “Routine feels safe,” says Rizzolo. “It’s reinforcing something we already know. But we’re not really safe unless we’re growing.”

“Routine feels safe,” says Rizzolo. “It’s reinforcing something we already know. But we’re not really safe unless we’re growing.”

In her workout programs, that means pushing your edge, being willing to appear foolish, getting help from others, and remaining open to new approaches and techniques. Taking up a new sport, you must be a beginner again and interact with students of all levels.

Challenge yourself by changing the speed, direction, angle, or ­intensity of a familiar movement. Are you an expert at the conventional pushup? Try one with your hands on an unstable surface or with one hand elevated. Do a ­spiderman pushup, moving along the floor. Perform a T-pushup, rotating an arm back on each rep. Work up to a hands-release or even a one-arm pushup.

Throwing a ball is another simple and fast way to get out of your head and into your body. No partner? Bounce it against the wall, first with one hand, then the other. Bounce it from one hand to the other. Use the ceiling. Use multiple walls. Go for perfect throws and catches every time.

Walking in nature offers ­limitless possibilities for learn­ing and spontaneity. Walk sideways or backward. Move on all fours on graded surfaces. Leap from one fallen leaf to the next. Hang from tree branches. Climb trees. Improvise.

The highest version of this learning and spontaneity is called “flow” — a state in which you lose self-consciousness, awareness of the passage of time, and even a sense that you are separate from the activity you’re performing, explains Kobrinsky.

That’s a high bar when you’re at a park or at the gym squeezing in some exercise before work. But the flow state is always available if you pay attention to the sensa­tions you’re experiencing: the sweat, the working muscles, the bar in your hands, or the turf beneath your feet.

4) Relish the pleasure in every challenge.

a man and woman high five while running

“There’s a learning curve for the ‘exercise high,’” says McGonigal. Deep stretches, for example, stimulate pain receptors — so that many people’s first response to a yoga class is an intense, even unpleasant one: “They say, ‘This hurts!’”

Not long into a regular practice, however, the experience changes fundamentally: “They’ll do the same poses and have the same physical experience, but they’ll say, ‘This feels good,’” she explains. “The brain changes how it interprets that same sensation.”

This physiological reframe isn’t unique to yoga. Runners learn to savor the feeling of a pounding heart on hard runs; weightlifters relish the strain in working muscles during heavy sets.

Just as your muscles, blood vessels, and heart adapt, your brain adapts too, says McGonigal. As we learn to handle the beneficial stress of exercise, what we once interpreted as pain becomes pleasurable. “The brain adapts to movement and exercise by learning to enjoy it more and rewarding you for it more,” she says.

The newly joyful perspective produces a greater dedication to movement and more of the long-term results you were hoping to achieve when you first began exercising.

The newly joyful perspective produces a greater dedication to movement and more of the long-term results you were hoping to achieve when you first began exercising.

The implicit lesson — one we experience and embody every time we exercise — is that we can adapt to challenges, overcome adversity, and confront fear with strength and resolve.

“You learn to change your response when you feel the first desire to give up,” says McGonigal. Experience that in an exercise class, she adds, and you start to apply the same lessons outside the gym too.

A workout, then, becomes a proving ground for confronting and overcoming difficulties rather than avoiding them.

“Then, when you’re dealing with challenges at work, or with your family, or with your health,” she says, you don’t shy away from them. “You just say, ‘Oh, right. I can do hard things.’”

This article originally appeared as “Move for the Joy of It” in the June 2023 issue of Experience Life.