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How can we work well?

Updated: Aug 31, 2023

Sometimes we struggle to find the motivation to get out and move about - to go for a run when it's cold and rainy, to go for a run when it's gloriously sunny... Whether we're running, gyming, cycling or walking, the motivation is rarely consistent. Our need to always be 'on', however, is pretty consistent.

The things we need to remember?

1. Try and move regularly, putting in moderate effort, relevant to us, for at least 20 minutes.

2. Get your recovery in and make sure it works for you (time with family / learning a new skill...)

These things support us on a number of physical, mental and spiritual levels, helping battle anxiety, depression and loneliness, as well as encouraging motivation, joy, resilience and better physical wellbeing.

What's the meaning of all this?

The realisation that moving is less about reward/punishment for a piece of cake and more for peace of mind is, when you get into it, pretty powerful.

Understanding more about The Corporate Athlete and listening to The Joy of Movement, among other educational endeavours, has reminded me of a few things and taught me a whole lot more.

Whether you're seeking connection, purpose, better energy levels or another area of improved wellbeing, the value of moving in some way - for our professional and personal lives - needs to be highlighted as much as possible.

But it's hard. When people talk about the value of these things, it can immediately be alienating, resonating mainly with the people who already know it, feel it and love it.

The reward systems in the brains of these people are probably already associating exercise - from yoga to swimming - with positive reinforcement, prompting people to continue returning to those activities they get so much from.

Apparently, a lot of it comes back to the human need for community. Community might be the reason we are rewarded for the activities (think sharing the goods of a forage or hunt) but community is definitely a reason that keeps people going.

Then there's the recovery. Humans are equipped to manage stress, and arguably we need it to grow and develop - but not unrelenting stress. It may be that the standard connotations of rest and recovery – “you need to sit down and stop everything” – actually puts people off looking into recovery, what it means for them and how they can go about it.

The winning path to recovery

There are methods to help everyone, but recovery - and the rituals that promote it - are individual. When we know what works for us then we can start forming habits around it, feeling brighter and more confident for it.

This might be finding time to go to the gym, but it also might mean spending time with family members, learning a new skill, or practising mindful breathing techniques. When we tap into what works for us, it helps us to reset and refocus, meaning we can keep performing at a high standard.

Researchers behind The Corporate Athlete looked at the key factors for high performing athletes and worked with top level executives to explore the similarities in practices and benefits. Forming rituals that help us to keep moving from stress to recovery and back again, for further growth, helps us to maintain performance. Using the rituals that work for us, they suggest, is paramount to (basically) doing the best job we can for as long as we can.

Working well - in essence, moving and recovering - helps us to better handle stress and develop because of it, building resilience and courage. Seeking out the joy in movement, and the rewards from recovery, helps us to find joy in life, to feel purpose and connectedness.

Why is moving so rewarding?

People compare addiction in exercise to other addictions. There are similarities, with reward systems in the brain behaving similarly; people feeling compelled to exercise upon seeing/hearing/feeling various prompts - as a person dealing with alcohol problems might be battling other temptations when in a bar, for example.

The drug that could be most closely compared to the exercise ‘drug’ is an antidepressant. The positive impact movement has in reducing anxiety, stress and depression is regularly unearthed in research studies. To have an addiction that helps to boost performance at work, build resilience and combat negative feelings, as well as provide the physical benefits, is a pretty fortunate position to be in. It is a position that seems attainable, on some level, for everyone.

So, what are the highs we’re chasing?

The 'high' - that's not just for runners - is linked to endocannabinoids, which have interested me no end after years of simply blaming endorphins when I'm grinning post-workout after being significantly less grin-happy (grumpy) pre-workout.

When we exercise, it’s consistently found that the level of endocannabinoids increases. Endocannabinoids help to maintain balance in our body and brain. Whilst stress can slow the growth of endocannabinoid receptors, regular exercise increases the density of endocannabinoid binding sites, making us better able to pick up on feelings of joy.

In a study cited by Kelly McGonigal, three physical experiments were conducted:

One group stepped on to a treadmill and went flat out, whilst one group went for a moderate walking pace, and one group went for a steady jog. Blood samples were taken from participants in each group to measure the levels of endocannabinoids before the exercise compared to afterwards.

The group who took up a steady jog for 20 minutes achieved increased levels of the endocannabinoids - 3 times as much as pre-jog - whilst the other two activities did not experience an increase. There is debate that this links back to hunting and gathering activities, suggesting we are being rewarded so that we keep going back out to forage/hunt, and keep sharing the bounties with our communities.

Research is ongoing, and complex, into the endocannabinoid system (ECS), but for this particular link to physical activity, it’s noted that something moderately difficult for you, for at least 20 minutes, is what helps to promote increases in the system which promote the range of positive benefits and keeps us going back for more.

“Recent data showed that physical activity correlates with elevated endocannabinoid serum concentrations and increased cannabinoid receptor type 1 (CB1R) expression in the brain, which results in positive neurological effects including antidepressant effect, ameliorated memory, neuroplasticity development, and reduced neuroinflammation.”

There is also, brilliantly, hope that research into the ECS can lead to landmark discoveries to help with neurological and neurodegenerative pathologies worldwide.

How do we move forward?

We look after ourselves and those around us as best we can.

In literally sad news, adults lose 13% of dopamine receptors in the reward system every decade - presenting less enjoyment in everyday pleasures. However, of course, exercise helps to prevent the decline. Active older adults have reward systems that look much more like those of individuals who are decades younger.

Physical activity and its benefits are closely intertwined with the positives of community.

We are designed to find pleasure in the activities that help us to survive, finding teamwork fulfilling and progress satisfying. We form attachments to people, places and communities and historically, movement helps us to connect, collaborate and celebrate.

Many examples are cited by McGonigal where people have found spiritual and mental benefits (purpose, reduced loneliness) when moving as part of a group.

“I didn’t know I was looking for love until I found you”

A lot of the time, we don’t realise we are searching for something until we reach that ‘something’. As is often sung about, we don’t know we’re looking for something until we find it.

Those who have found some kind of joy from movement or exercise are in a privileged place. But, as discussed, motivation comes and goes for us all. Understanding why we are doing it and sharing active moments of connection with others can really help us all in such a wide variety of ways.

As most of us have multiple commitments, and occupations, which lead us to feel pressure and stress, it seems like we need to do what we can to build communities, share active moments of connection with others, and encourage movement - to, quite literally, keep the joy alive.

Keeping the joy alive will help to develop your career, your communities and your wellbeing. Recovering will help to keep all of that possible. Working well has to be the way forward.

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