It shouldn’t surprise readers of this magazine that the more we move, the better off we are. Science has proven this. But when health psychologist and author Kelly McGonigal stumbled across a simple phrase that eloquently described how exercise has the power to heal, she decided to make it her personal mission to spread the good word.

The phrase that stopped McGonigal in her tracks? The “hope molecule.”

Also a lecturer at Stanford University, McGonigal was deep in the exploratory phase for her book, The Joy of Movement, when she read a 2016 paper published in the journal Physical Therapy that named the hope molecule. The authors were referencing a secondary study that used mice to demonstrate how chronic stress, which can cause depression, made the rodents “lose hope.” But the findings also suggested that “the release of ‘hope molecules’ from the skeletal muscles of rodents influence mood disorder symptoms” in a positive way, thus helping to build hope and resilience. 

Those two words, “hope” and “molecule” were so casually written side-by-side in the paper that McGonigal says they could’ve been easily glossed over. But they stuck with her.

In short, hope molecules, which are more commonly known by their scientific name, myokines, are a way to personally give yourself an intravenous dose of “hope” through exercise, says McGonigal. “You’re literally supplying your bloodstream with these hope molecules every time you move your body.”

We now know that muscles are like endocrine organs, she explains, and each organ has the ability to produce chemicals whose functions are to communicate with other systems in our bodies. Muscles can do the same. They produce proteins and molecules that can specifically target the immune system, cardiovascular system or even the brain—essentially any metabolic system.

“The body stores these molecules and then releases them based on how you use your muscles,” she says. “Your muscles use movement as a signal to basically unleash this cascade of really important chemicals that help keep you healthy and help you thrive. Being sedentary, on the other hand, actually shuts them down.”

When muscles are contracted during movement, be it from lifting weights, swimming laps, or anything in between, they send a signal to release a wide range of chemicals into the bloodstream. These chemicals are incredibly powerful in supporting overall health, both mentally and physically.

While myokines are an important component to achieving optimal health, the word itself doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. Instead, more simple language like “hope molecule” means “people are so much more likely to be able to understand it as a direct experience,” says McGonigal. It’s an interesting commentary on language and how using basic words to describe something more complex can make it easier to apply to one’s life. 

When it comes to movement, it doesn’t have to be extreme in order to reap the benefits of the hope molecule. It’s about finding a type of exercise that suits your body as much as your lifestyle. For McGonigal, her fitness journey has almost always had an element of play and she thrives on the community that fitness fosters. She teaches group fitness classes, favours HIIT workouts and practises yoga often.

The research doesn’t say you have to run a marathon, McGonigal explains, but you should be doing something that’s hard for you, a challenge. “I’ve always emphasized that all movement is good and there’s no dose too small to make a difference. But I also want to encourage people that if there’s part of you that wants to take on a challenge, do it. It can really amplify all of the emotional and social and mental benefits of movement.”

Photography by Ben Krantz

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