Want to keep your brain in a healthier balance and improve your life even while the world feels like it’s spinning out of control? Harvard Psychiatrist John Ratey, M.D., tells us how. He advises that we go for a little run or brisk walk. Why? 

Dr. Ratey says, “…it’s like taking a little bit of Prozac and a little bit of Ritalin because, like the drugs, exercise elevates these neurotransmitters…exercise balances neurotransmitters — along with the rest of the neurochemicals in the brain. And as you’ll see, keeping your brain in balance can change your life.” Dr. Ratey and others in the field of exercise science and related health disciplines, lecture and write frequently on how physical activity can help reduce depression, anxiety, stress and anger; activity expands brain processing, creates longevity, improves sleep quality, and strengthens the immune system. Immune system? Hmmm, seems that lately especially we’ve heard a bit about all kinds of things that purport to enhance that within us. Trust this one. Move well to live well. 

This links nicely with what author and lecturer, Tal Ben-Shahar in his 2010 book, Even Happier, asks and answers, “Is exercising, then, like taking an antidepressant? Not exactly. In essence, NOT exercising is like taking a depressant.

Similarly, positive psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D., in her book, The How of Happiness says, “Research demonstrates that exercise may be the most reliable happiness booster of all activities.” 

I’d be remiss if I left out Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D. author of The Joy of Movement, who observes, “Around the world, people who are physically active are happier and more satisfied with their lives…whether their preferred activity is walking, running, swimming, dancing, biking, playing sports, lifting weights, or practicing yoga. People who are regularly active have a stronger sense of purpose, and they experience more gratitude, love, and hope. They feel more connected to their communities, are less likely to suffer from loneliness or become depressed. These benefits are seen throughout the lifespan.”

Why wouldn’t it be this way? There’s a great deal of chemistry behind it all. Leptin for that runner’s high, BDNF (brain derived neurotrophic factor) to clear thinking and improve memory, Endorphins for greater happiness, Norepinephrine to improve heart rate and help reduce stress, Dopamine to upgrade our motivation and Serotonin to boost our mood overall, are some of the key “happiness” chemicals that physical movement heightens within us.

McGonigal tells us that when folks who exercise regularly stop for two weeks or more, they become more anxious, tired and hostile. When research subjects were told to reduce their step count, almost 90% became more depressed and within only one week, they reported a 31% decline in life satisfaction. The researchers found that 5,649 steps a day induced these feelings. Hmm, sound familiar now that we are all sheltering-at-home? Sheltering doesn’t need to be a sedentary activity at all.  

The lesson? Keep moving enough to get your heart rate up for at least twenty minutes and you’ll feel the physical and mental reward. And the return is even starker when you move together with others, what Émile Durkheim called in 1912, “collective effervescence.” So, gather up your spouse, partner, kids, neighbors, friends and start walking or jogging around your neighborhood, in a nearby park, or do some aerobic and body resistance activities as a small group – strictly adhering to medical health guidelines of physical distancing of course.

Ah, but that’s easier said than done, right? Especially when your flooded with negative emotions, fatigue, boredom, and that “Oh, why bother?” attitude. Perhaps it’s time to tell yourself another story, one that will shape your behaviors in a more positive way.

Yes, when you get moving that’ll become easier, but in the meantime, listen to the words you use to describe your current circumstance. Are you “carrying burdens,” “trying to pull yourself together,” “just get through this mess,”? Why not reframe this language in the manner that McGonigal suggests, “When we are faced with adversity or doubting our own strength, it can help to feel these actions in our bodies. When you embrace the metaphorical meaning of movements, you can literally sense the strength that is in you and the support that is available to you.”

Find it in you to take the first step and that alone will provide you with a stronger story to continue forward for many more.