I can’t say I’ve ever regretted a workout. That doesn’t mean every session I’ve ever had has gone well. I’ve had bad lifts, low-energy runs, pickup basketball games where I’ve missed multiple layups. There was one Taekwondo class where I misjudged a flying sidekick and woke up a half hour later, thoroughly concussed.
But maladies aside, I’ve always found myself feeling happy, healthy and hopeful at the close of any workout. I’m always glad I rallied, always inspired for having gotten myself out there. If you’ve ever studied the faces of classmates or teammates after a yoga hour or track workout, you’ve likely seen this emotion on full display: a sort of weary, sweaty, proud relief. Time for dinner.
In recent years, as exercise science continues to interrogate the relationship between movement and mental health, researchers have actually provided an explanation for this sensation: “hope molecules.”
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What Are Hope Molecules?
The term “hope molecules” refers to myokines, or the proteins that are produced by our muscles during any sort of contraction: walking, running, lifting weights, spending 10 minutes opening a jar of marinara sauce. Unlike ordinary proteins, these myokines are tasked with a unique quest. They travel through the bloodstream and eventually cross the blood-brain barrier, where they prove a peptide powerhouse. Myokines are essentially all-natural antidepressants: they reduce stress, improve mood and learning, reduce inflammation, control blood sugar levels, combat cancer cells, and turbocharge brain function. Consider them your in-house guardians of mental and physical well-being.
Still on the Up and Up
Myokines are still relatively unheralded in casual conversation. (Perhaps why they were due for a catchy rebrand.) But that’s only because the research into their function is still young; during the last few years, researchers and health professionals like Stanford psychologist Dr. Kelly McGonigal (author of The Joy of Movement), have been at the forefront in explaining myokines’ dramatic impact on mental health and overall well-being.
As Dr. McGonigal explains: “Our muscles are like an endocrine organ. When you contract your muscles in any type of movement, they are secreting chemicals into your bloodstream that are really good for every system of your body; they’re great for your heart health, your immune function and some of them can kill cancer cells. All the stuff we know exercise is good for. But a big part of these proteins and chemicals that are being released by your muscles, which are called myokines, has profound effects on the brain.”
It’s Too Good. It’s True.
Anytime you read about a wellness panacea, your internal alarm bells should start going off. After all, research recently found that a whopping 60% of of the most popular online “fitfluencers” are currently offering bad advice, spreading messages that are negatively affecting the mental and physical health of their followers.
But the pitch for hope molecules is extremely simple: move. Regardless of age or fitness level, everyone can tap into this power. Literally any form of muscle movement will triggers the release of these “hope molecules.” And if you want to flood your system with even more myokines, then ratchet up your workout intensity.
Ultimately, the benefits extend beyond that immediate mood lift we mentioned earlier. Frequent myokine boosts build a buffer against mental health issues like depression and anxiety. Little wonder recent studies have suggested that the long-term mental health impact of regular exercise can equal (or even surpass) that of antidepressant medication.
By embracing an active lifestyle, you’re not just working towards physical fitness; you’re literally giving yourself an “intravenous dose of hope” (to quote McGonigal) with every move you make. It’s the secret to resilience and well-being that has been within us all along.