Exercise your right to JOY

“Around the world, people who are physically active are happier and more satisfied with their lives.”–Kelly McGonigal

“Movement awakes and activates many of our mental capacities.”–Carla Hannaford

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I was going through the movements of getting ready for my work day half-heartedly listening to a podcast whose title had promised much.  Unfortunately, like many podcasts, it ended up being another interview designed to promote the sale of a book. My phone was off to the side, away from my point of focus, so I didn’t immediately stop the interview.  

Despite my lack of focus/interest, my ears perked up when I overhead a nugget of an idea.  Unfortunately, I cannot quote the idea precisely since I wasn’t fully focused.  However, the kernel of its intent resonated with me.  It was the idea that the main focus of exercise should not necessarily be to get “fit,” to maintain or lose weight, sleep better, or any of the other valid reasons.  Instead, the main goal of all exercise/movement should be to increase joy.

This was such an interesting thesis that I had to dive more into the topic, and it turns out science has quite a bit to say about this.  Of course, I nearly always feel better when I can integrate movement into my day.  Plus, I typically felt better after more “formal” exercise sessions.  However, this was all anecdotal.  

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Before diving into the research a few days later, my mind kept going back to the notion of reframing our relationship with exercise.  Dropping the typical exercise narratives–weight management, fitness goals, therapeutic/emotional release, better sleep and so forth was fascinating. Of course, exercise provides all of those goals and more, but the idea of letting those be the side dishes, and allowing joy to be the main course was intriguing.

After perusing numerous articles, I became super excited; I knew this information needed to be shared with my local community and beyond.  This felt especially important since I have previously written pieces fostering the notion that movement is for every unique body–even those with limitations, and it can be incorporated into daily life even on the busiest of days.  Armed with this information, I was ready to spread the word: More Movement = More Joy!  

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Exercise, even in short bursts of time, improves one mood. A study conducted by West Virginia University found that middle school students who regularly exercise feel overall happier.  This was a no brainer! Ask any educator what their students’ behavior and mood is like on days they don’t have recess versus days they get it, and you’ll most likely get an earful.  Kids instinctively know they need movement, and if they can’t get it via the playground, athletics, dance, etc.–they are going to find ways to move more animatedly in the classroom.  Otherwise, if kept from moving, they become sullen, whiney, moody, or even combative/confrontational. And, this is also true for adults.

Interestingly, in one study, researchers determined specific movements that not only are associated with the feeling of joy, but also enhance the joy when completed.  These include: reaching, swaying, bouncing, shaking, jumping, and an action called, “celebration,” an action that mimics tossing confetti overhead with both hands. One researcher, Kelly McGonigal, writing for the New York Times, created, shared, and posted a video in the article, “The Joy Workout”, based upon these specific movements.  The video is approximately eight minutes long, and can be easily accessed through a quick click of keys.  (It is important to note, after giving it a try myself, not all movements are appropriate for those with limited mobility or injuries; however, movements could be modified or even completed while sitting.)  

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Another interesting study I ran across stated that simply standing, sitting, or moving with a more open posture, as opposed to a closed posture, can likewise increase positive feelings.  Moreover, a smaller 2021 study focused on participants who were asked to go through a series of movements similar to those McGonigal studied.  Once more, movement, even those completed in a seated posture, increased feelings of happiness. Clearly, exercising with the goal of joy in mind is not a crazy notion.

My research continued, including studies from the University of Michigan, University of Iowa, University of Texas, and Northeastern University, just to name a few.  What I found was that scientists tended to agree that all forms of exercise/movement are beneficial when performed safely.  That said, aerobic exercise currently seems to have a slight edge overall in brain boosting potential, but that may be because it appears to be the most researched. However, all conclude that exercise and movement benefit the young, seniors, and all ages in between.  Whether a short burst of activity or a more formal workout, movement ameliorates the effects of depression and anxiety by boosting the production of serotonin, and other feel-good chemicals and decreasing stress-inducing hormones. 

Exercise your right to enJOY movement with friends and family.

When we move, we increase our heart rate, which, in turn, moves more oxygen to the brain. As numerous studies indicate, increased oxygen to the brain mitigates symptoms of anxiety and depression. Furthermore, movement/exercise, when repeated frequently enough, can give rise to new neurons in the hippocampus, the area of the brain responsible for not only emotions, but also memory and learning!  This means that movement/exercise not only affects your brain in the moment in which you are participating, but it also makes positive structural changes over time.

So back to “The Joy Workout.” Does it work?  Well, only you can decide that. I will say that I found it clever, cute, and definitely made me smile.  However, you do not have to do “The Joy Workout” in order to feel joy in movement.  I found multiple, what I like to call, “movement-snacks,” videos and apps that offer 10-minute or less movement breaks if that’s your thing, such as the 7-minute workout, available on-line and in app version.  

Joy can be increased through movement, step-by-step.

Of course, there are so many other ways to increase movement from taking short walk breaks, to parking farther away from your destination, from walking to another floor for a restroom break to simply stretching or walking/marching in place on commercial or pop-up breaks, and so much more. The important thing, researchers noted, is that you find ways to move and/or exercise that you enjoy, that can easily be incorporated into your daily routine, so that you will do them on a regular basis in order to reap all those joyful benefits.

Ultimately, who doesn’t want to feel more joy moving into the new year?  Help boost yourself towards that goal by determining ways you like to move.  The worst movement mistakes you can make are inactivity or repeatedly moving/exercise in a way in which you dread it.  Let’s keep it simple.  Focus on moving more, smiling more, and feeling more joy overall.  It doesn’t have to be any more complicated than that.

Take a leap of faith, move for joy!

Choose Joy

Participate joyfully in the sorrows of the world.  We cannot cure the world of sorrow, but we can choose to live in joy.–Joseph Campbell

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There is a documentary about a Holocaust survivor named Gerda Weissmann Klein that I have watched on several occasions with students.  Her story is, like many Holocaust survivor stories, one of inspiration, hope, and even joy.  One of the lines that often comes back to me is when Weissmann Klein specifically addresses how she survived a death march towards the end of World War II.  Despite the fact this march occurred during the height of a brutally harsh winter, Wiessmann Klein was able to survive for a number of reasons, one of which included her ability to “occupy her mind.”

In simple terms, Weissmann Klein was able to take her mind’s focus off the cruel conditions around her.  Rather than brood over the extreme cold, her hunger, her fatigue or any other legitimate complaint, she colorfully described her intentional deliberations that could last all day, such as spending an entire day planning out her next birthday party, even though she had not been able to have one since the Nazi occupation.  However, it wasn’t so much the what of her thoughts, but the fact that she was able to focus/distract her mind away from the pain/discomfort that naturally accompanied her situation.  Instead she intentionally directed her attention towards ideas/notions/thoughts that safely allowed her to “escape” and feel some sense of happiness if only cerebrally.  It is this human ability to occupy one’s mind, or shift the mind’s attention/perspective, that is a powerful take-away from Weissmannn Klein’s story, and I believe is transferable to other, much less brutal situations.   

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Given the news, the pandemic, the  major weather events, and all of the sobering occurrences from the past few years, it is easy to allow our mind to focus on the what-is-wrong-in-the-world, whether you are looking at the big picture or sometimes even your own personal circumstances. I know I can easily get wrapped up in the negative and get a full-steam-on gripe session with the best of them.  On one hand, I know it can be beneficial to get the negativity off-your-chest; on the other hand, I also know that there is danger in dwelling or focusing on it for too long–at least for me.

In a similar manner, I’ve noticed that both positivity and negativity are contagious within myself and among others. If I enter work feeling grumpy, put-off, or focused on some negative happening, I tend to attract and may even catch myself seeking out negativity.  It’s not per se always a conscious choice, it just seems to happen that way.  As soon as I recognize it, I feel badly for having given that gray cloud permission to come along for a ride.  The real danger, it seems to me, is when negativity is left unaddressed.

Negative mindsets have a tendency to spiral out of control.  It may start with something as simple as an accidental spill or mess that throws off the morning routine, followed up by that s-l-o-w driver on the morning commute while listening to frustrating news on the radio.  This may then turn into a later than planned arrival at work, followed by unhappy/unpleasant conversation, followed by a work-related problem in need of addressing for uptenth time, and by the time lunch arrives–which is often a working lunch–negativity can feel as if it is bursting at the seams.  

I think Ms. Weissmann Klein was onto something when it comes to not defaulting to the negative. We must actively and intentionally teach our mind to choose joy.  No, it’s not easy, and yes, it sounds cliché.  However, I do believe that we have a choice of how we respond to our circumstances, but like all skills, it takes practice and thought.

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I think the lyrics to a King and Country song entitled, “Joy,” best encapsulates this thought.  It is oh-so-easy to focus on all of those nightly news headlines that vie for our attention.  Easier still, is to become wrapped up in our personal headlines: illness, death, divorce, finances, job loss/stress, future uncertainties and so forth.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve caught myself in the woe-is-me mind story; it’s so darn easy to do.  Here is what I am learning when I catch myself having fallen prey to pessimism.

Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy. –Thich Nhat Hanh

Believe it or not, the simple act of smiling can be a lightswitch for our mindset.  I first discovered this through running, but I find it just as helpful in most other situations.  Whether it’s my legs and calves aching from the exertion of exercise, or it’s my shoulders and neck tightening in reaction to stress, as soon as I catch myself responding negatively to stress–to the degree possible–I focus on deeper breathing, relaxing the tightened areas, and adding a smile.  I smile at the sense of accomplishment I will feel once I have completed the goal; smile at the fact I am proud of myself for having caught myself slipping into negativity; smile at the fact that my body still has the ability to exercise, work, read–whatever. All of which leads to more smiling because, well, I am smiling–which leads to the release of feel-good hormones.

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I was talking to a sister recently about how we wake up with the best intentions to remain sunny and positive, and then one thing might set off the day, and BOOM, there goes the mindset.  My husband says, however, that is part of living in faith.  He reminds me that it’s not about perfection, but recognizing your imperfections–your humanity–and then trying again. 

In the words of King and Country, “. . . Oh, hear my prayer tonight, I’m singing to the sky/ Give me strength to raise my voice, let me testify . . . The time has come to make a choice

And I choose joy!

I can’t pretend to choose joy in every moment, nor am I not acknowledging the very realness of life, headlines, personal crises and all.  Nevertheless, even in the bad times, sorrows, and heartbreak and loss, I can choose my response, and I can choose to find at least one reason to smile.  

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Container Gardening: A Lesson in Parach (Thriving)

“Love and work are to people what water and sunshine are to plants.”–Jonathan Haidt

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Since March of 2020, I have experienced a few bouts with melancholy.  I suspect that I am not unique in experiencing these moments of sadness.  In fact, I feel as if these lugubrious time periods are a normal reaction given the amount of drastic change that is (and continues) to occur.  Like others, I have found various ways of battling the blues that have mostly worked, such as exercising outside, following a meditation program, reading for pleasure, and so forth. However, the most surprising coping mechanism–at least for me–has been container gardening.

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“The glory of gardening: hands in the dirt, head in the sun, heart with nature.  To nurture a garden is to feed not just the body, but the soul.”–Alfred Austin

To be certain, my husband, John, and I have tried our fair share of gardening in the past.  Our reasons for attempting were well-intended; however, in the end, we lacked the stick-to-it-ness that a large-scale garden requires.  Ultimately, the continuous ebb and flow of life demanded our attention, and gardening fell away.  

Thus, based upon those past experiences, my foray into container gardening has been modest.  Still, nurturing my few flowering plants and vegetables has provided a positive point of focus.  Walking out my kitchen and front doors each day to bear witness to the growth of these plants has cultivated within me a renewed sense of hope and purpose.  The plants’ growth and ability to thrive depend upon not only my actions, but also the right ingredients. 

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Container plants require regular exposure to light.  That said, each plant’s needs for light vary, so I had to become a keen observer in order to determine the ideal location for each plant. I quickly learned that my current selection of herbs, begonias, and mums will turn yellow, brown, and even look burned if given too much light, causing their leaves, and ultimately blossoms, to dwindle and die off.  Therefore, placing these plants in areas that only received  morning light and/or partial shade allowed them to flourish.  Contrastly, my vegetables, a modest variety of tomatoes, peppers, and onions, grow spindly, turn yellow, and simply don’t grow without enough sunlight.  Therefore, they needed to be placed in an area that receives six or more hours of direct sunlight in order to produce.    

These red peppers are thriving in the abundant sunshine.

Growing plants in containers also requires regular intervals of watering.  Like sunlight needs, different plants have different watering requirements.  The morning-sun/partial shade plants typically need watered every other day during excessive heat periods, but less frequent waterings during more moderate temperatures.  In direct contrast, the vegetable producing plants need daily watering.  Go one day without water, and the vegetable leaves begin to wilt, droop, and even fall off.  However, too much water can be just as deadly I discovered during a mid-June rainy period.  During this time period, the vegetables, I determined with a bit of research, developed something called blossom rot caused by the depletion of calcium in the container’s soil from too much rain.  Therefore, I had to find a way to add calcium back into the soil.  Unfortunately, I also learned, the hard way, that applying too much of the calcium based product can burn the leaves–nearly killing the plant. 

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Therefore, regular intervals of fertilizer, in the right combination/amounts, is also critical to the plants ability to thrive.  Thankfully, I chose to start each of my plants in potting soil that already had been enriched with the correct combination/amount of fertilizer.  I purchased one type for flowering plants and another type for the vegetable producing plants.  Additionally, with a bit more research, I settled on a couple of different fertilizers to use several weeks into summer, and within days of adding them, the plants seemed to double in size.  In fact, this growth period taught me the importance of pruning–taking time to periodically cut back excessive growth, remove withering leaves, or pinch back fading blossoms in order to maintain the health of the plants.

I am so glad that I started these tasty herbs–oregano, basil, and lemon thyme–off in a quality potting soil with the right type of fertilizer.

One final point of interest that I also learned this summer was the size of the plant determines the size of the container–which of course, makes sense.  However, any container can serve as a vessel for a plant as long as it has hole for water drainage, so the plant doesn’t become waterlogged from too much rain or unintentional overwatering.  Afterall, heavy rains and/or summer storms often occur during the humid summer months.

Without proper drainage holes, these beauties–begonias–would have drowned in some of the heavy rains of June and July.

Therefore, these experiences have provided a poignant life lesson.  A month or so ago, I came across a reference to the Bible in which the author wrote that the word thrive is often used as a translation of the Hebrew verb, parach.  When I searched to confirm this definition, I discovered that parach has three meanings, one of which is to bud (sprout, bloom, shoot).  Therefore, like my container garden, if we want our lives to “parach,” we must fill them with the right ingredients.  Much will depend on our current circumstances, life-history, age, status, perhaps gender, and other life markers.  Just as any container can produce a beautiful plant, there is no one size fits all for individual growth and vibrancy.  However, there are a few common denominators.

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First, while plants will wilt, wither, and wane without sunlight, each variation does have its own requisite levels when it comes to the amount of daily light needed. Likewise, our lives must be rooted in The Light, the great Creator of the pure essence of our spirit and soul.  This may look different from one person’s faith systems and/or practices to another.  For example, consider all the differences that are often seen among styles of worship within one church denomination, such as Baptist, much less all of the other variations/interpretations of worship and faith practices from one denomination or religion to another.  Nonetheless, we all need a source for hope, faith, and light.

Rooted in the true heavenly Source allows one to weather the storms.

Secondly, our lives must be watered regularly.  There is no getting around the rainy seasons of life.  Without the stormy times of life, there is no growth.  If there is no growth, then there is no sense of joy, no need to celebrate or savor special moments/accomplishments.  The old adage,“Into every life a bit of rain must fall,” is a maxim for reason!  Furthermore, like my vegetables experiencing blossom rot from too much rain, there are times in which we may become waterlogged by the storms of life. Those are the times in which we must develop and learn to rely on life’s proverbial drain holes in order to unload some of the sadnesses that are part of life. These so-called drain holes can take on numerous forms depending upon personal preferences/needs, such as talking to a trusted friend/family member, exercising, crafting, gardening, therapy, and so forth. All can encourage movement toward some form of homeostasis

As seen on Instagram at heartcenteredrebalancing.

Finally, each person needs a unique combination of fertilizer and soil mixture.  What enriches one life, may not be the spark that boosts another’s. What’s more, the very practice or habit(s) that lit you up at an earlier point in your life may not provide the same enhancement later on in years–or if it does, it may need modification.  Furthermore, like my plants that needed pruning, there may be poor or unproductive habits that need reformed, remediated, or removed in order to further facilitate quality growth. The point is that in order to increase one’s vibrancy, one needs some source of positive inner joy, interest, or motivation that creates the spark in life.  

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Unlike my plants, a human life typically lives through multiple seasons.  However, no matter the number of seasonal changes through which we live, life is still short.  Therefore, it is worth taking time to cultivate the right conditions in order to parach.  If quality does not go into your life, you can’t expect to get quality in return.  In the end, when our growing season comes to a close, we will not be remembered for the container in which we lived, but by the fruits that we shared with others.  May your harvest be bountiful.

As seen on Instagram at mylifesbt.
As seen in Instagram at myliftsbt