It’s no secret that exercise, even in small doses, can improve your mood. Researchers have dubbed it the effect feel better or “feel better.”
While any type of physical activity—a walk, a swim, a little yoga—can give you an emotional high, we wanted to create a short exercise video designed specifically to keep people happy. What would a “joy routine” look like?
I am a psychologist and I am fascinated by the science of emotion. I have also taught group exercise classes for over 20 years. To design a joy routine I drew on the research I used in those classes to maximize people’s enjoyment of moving their body.
Imagine a fan that explodes when their team manages to sneak into the semifinals. They jump up and down like these kids in a video that went viral last year on Instagram.
Researchers have identified several movements like this that are recognized in many cultures to be inspired by joy: raising your arms, rocking from side to side, like concertgoers immersing themselves in music; other rhythmic movements such as jumping to the beat of a beat; or perhaps take up more space, like dancers spinning with their arms outstretched. These physical actions not only express a feeling of joy: research shows that they can also generate it.
When, in several small studies, people were instructed to perform these types of movements, they began to report more positive emotions. And the opposite actions, such as sinking and shrinking, evoked sadness and fear. Another study suggested that the effects of joy moves are strongest when you can also see someone else doing them, in part because happiness is contagious.
The result is an eight and a half minute routine that makes us feel these effects. It’s six moves of joy: reaching, swinging, bouncing, shaking, jumping for joy, and one I called “celebrate” because it’s like throwing confetti into the air. I based this routine on research and the moves that bring the most joy in my classes, among people of all ages and abilities.
You should do the movements in the way that feels good, as big or as small and as fast or as slow as you want. If a move doesn’t feel right, repeat a previous one or make up your own, moving in any way that feels joyous, powerful, playful, or graceful. The video shows a workout standing up, but you can also try it sitting down.
We added a soundtrack intended to enhance positive emotions. You’ll hear up-tempo songs in a major key, with a strong beat. If you have other favorite music that makes you happy, you can mute the video and listen to the one you like.
The cheer routine is just one way to lift your spirits through movement. Consider this video as an experiment and an invitation to find your own joy of movement. There are plenty of other science-backed ways to improve your mood with exercise:
Move outdoors, in a park or anywhere that gives you a dose of nature.
Move with other people, in a class or training team. Or do it casually with friends and family.
Move to music, whether it’s through traditional exercise like jogging or biking, or do it with anything that fires up your body, like singing karaoke, playing the drums, or even air guitar.
Kelly McGonigal is a Ph.D. psychologist, professor at Stanford University, and author of the The Joy of Movement: How Exercise Helps Us Find Happiness, Hope, Connection, and Courage. She is a certified group exercise instructor who has been leading movement classes for over twenty years.
Publishers: Danny Blum, Lori Leibovich, farah miller, Erik Vance
Video: Andrew B. Myers, Riyait Jaspal
Music: Marion Lozano; sound: isaac jones; Talent: Shannon Spaulding