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The Science of Building Hope through Fitness

Fun fact: When I’m not in Dr. Mini mode, I’m also a competitive bodybuilder! Check out my IG, to get all the latest on my fitness updates.

Have you ever noticed how a lot of people in the fitness community seem to be super energized, positive, and generally happy? Like how do they seem to always be in a good mood?

To be clear, no one is happy all the time, but being fit can be a catalyst for mental wellbeing.

Hope has been declared as one of the most important feeling states in positive psychology research. Those who have high levels of hope are more physically healthy, less susceptible to disease, and perform better academically and athletically. Studies show elite athletes score exceptionally high on measures of hope, indicating despite raw talent, grit, or even optimism without hope are not sufficient.

We all know that physical fitness has tremendous benefits when it comes to physical strength, endurance, cardiovascular health, and building a healthy immune system. However, exercise has more benefits than just improved physical health and the aesthetic rewards.

Many of us start our fitness journey to improve ourselves. Some started to look better in our jeans, others started as a way to manage or prevent a medical condition, while others were looking to transform their lives. But what if you learned that whatever got you started is probably not the only reason you choose to sustain a physically active lifestyle.

Growing evidence now points to the cognitive, emotional, and spiritual benefits from exercise.

Your brain becomes much more active during exercise. Our organs are in constant communication with one another. This sophisticated mechanism of cell-to-cell and organ-to-organ talk is known as “organ crosstalk”.

One-way neurons communicate is through electrical pulses. Sometimes entire networks of neurons fire in unison, like a group of baseball fans cheering together at a game. These synchronized pulses are known commonly as brain waves. Different kinds of brain waves, characterized by the number of times they oscillate in a single second, are linked to one’s mental state and mood.

Lower-frequency waves occur when we’re running on autopilot (e.g., brushing our teeth, driving, listening to a boring speech) Higher-frequency waves, known as beta waves, occur when we’re awake and mentally engaged and are associated with attention, memory, and information processing. Researchers have found that aerobic exercise causes a shift in the amplitude and frequency of brain waves. More beta waves, in other words, means that exercisers may be in a more alert state.

During exercise, the brain becomes much more receptive to incoming information, leading to measurable changes in sensory input, including vision. The visual cortex is designed to zero in on important features in the environment—the kind of features that might indicate, for example, the presence of a predator—and filter out less important background information. We become more focused and attentive.

Exercise has many benefits on brain function. The release of “feel good hormones” including endorphins, serotonin, oxytocin and dopamine during exercise, are known to:

  • Enhance learning

  • Improve memory

  • Improve attention

  • Better sleep

  • Relaxation

  • improve mood.

  • Inhibit long term depression.

But what else does physical exercise do?

You might visualize Arnold Schwarzenegger or Venice Beach when you hear the word “muscle”. And while, yes, muscles are fibrous slabs of meat wrapped around our bones involved in moving, lifting, and sitting still, muscles also control our heartbeat, help us to breathe, aid digestion, and allow us to see. But what scientists are now discovering is that muscles also function as an endocrine organ that manufactures and secretes hormones into the bloodstream which affects every system in the body. The most important finding is that the most beneficial molecules release when you contract your muscles, or exercise. (don't forget to squeeze!!)

Apart from receiving endocrine signals through growth hormones, and growth factors, muscles, bone, and other tissues secrete biochemical signals by their cells facilitating the metabolism of its tissues and the whole body. These molecules are known as “organokines'' in general and depending on their tissue of origin, they are named adipokines, hepatokines, batokines, osteokines, and myokines.

Hope Molecules

Stanford Psychologist, Dr. Kelly McGonigal shares in her latest book, The Joy of Movement,

“Every time you take a single step, you contract over two hundred myokine-releasing muscles. The very same muscles that propel your body forward also send proteins to your brain that stimulate the neurochemistry of resilience.” (McGonigal, Kelly. The Joy of Movement. p. 193. Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.)

Myokines (Myo= muscle, kin= movement/motion) originate in muscle tissue, are produced by muscle cells during exercise and are believed to have a range of positive effects on health.

Scientifically known as myokines, “hope molecules” are secreted by our skeletal muscles in response to any movement or muscle contraction. These small proteins are responsible for many health benefits associated with physical activity including improved metabolism, reduced inflammation, increased muscle strength and in recent studies, improved mental health.

Receptors for myokines are found on muscle, fat, liver, pancreas, bone, heart, immune, and brain cells. The location of these receptors reflects the fact that myokines have multiple functions. Most interestingly, they are involved in exercise-associated metabolic changes, as well as in the metabolic changes following training adaptation.

When secreted into the bloodstream, myokines have been shown to kill cancer cells, boost cardiovascular health, and regulate blood sugar. Many of these molecules travel from the muscles through the bloodstream into the brain and act as antidepressants, reducing symptoms such as despair and anxiety. In the long term, however, physical exercise creates functional and structural changes in the brain to make us more resilient to stress and trauma.

Some of the most significant myokines (hope molecules) include:

Irisin is manufactured by muscle cells in response to exercise. Irisin has been shown to advance the conversion of white fat to brown fat, which burns calories to produce heat. This effect can help to reduce body fat and improve metabolic health, which are important for preventing and managing a range of diseases, including obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease- each of ehich have increased risk of mental health comorbilities (i.e., depression, anxiety).

Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) is involved in promoting the growth and development of new neurons in the brain, which can help to improve cognitive function and reduce the risk of age-related cognitive decline.

Interleukin 6 (IL-6) has been shown to have anti-inflammatory effects, which can help to reduce the risk of chronic inflammation, a key contributor to many diseases, including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and some types of cancer.

Interleukin 22 (IL-22) has been shown to have a range of health benefits, including promoting the growth of new blood vessels, which can improve cardiovascular health. A study published in 2012 the found that the levels of certain myokines, including IL-22, were higher in centenarians than in younger individuals.

Fibroblast growth factor 21 (FGF21) deficiency results in greater body weight, adiposity, dyslipidemia, and insulin resistance in mice fed a low-fat diet.

How ‘hope molecules’ improve mental health

Myokines are referred to as ‘hope molecules’ because they have the ability to cross the blood-brain barrier and work at the brain level to help it recover from stress.

A 2014 study showed that higher levels of myokines released during exercise can influence mood disorder symptoms and protect against post-traumatic stress disorder. In the brain, myokines can act as an antidepressant, help increase our brain’s resistance to stress, increase motivation, and build a sense of hope. How cool is that??

Scientific research has shown that people who engage in regular physical activity report fewer symptoms of trauma, depression, and anxiety compared to those who are less active. Exercise can also promote better sleep quality, reduce stress, and boost self-esteem. These benefits can improve our overall outlook on life and help to generate hope.

There are many ways to exercise.

Depending on your ability and interest, choose what you know you like and will stick with. I like to diversify my fitness regimen depending on the day, but create a plan that works next for your lifestyle:

  • Weight/resistance training

  • Running

  • Hiking

  • Biking

  • Surfing

  • Yoga

  • Stretching

  • Dance

  • Swimming

  • Community Sports

Although more intense training increases secretion of hope molecules, all types of movement have benefits. All that matters is that you move!!

Despite unsuccessful attempts at one or more paths, hope includes having a mindset to never give up. It’s important to recognize that there are multiple paths to success and that we learn from our mistakes.We could all use a little more hope these days and what an incredible thing it is to know that, through exercise, you can secrete chemicals to do just that. #loveit

Challenge yourself to do something each day for at least 30 minutes. If getting started is difficult, I recommend you get a partner, hire a trainer, or join a group class to build confidence while having accountability. Many local community centers offer free or discounted classes and exercise events for students, veterans, and seniors (i.e., walking groups, gym class, etc.)

How are you moving your body? Have you noticed mental health benefits from your exercise regimen? Message me or comment below - I’d love to hear your thoughts!


-Dr. Mini

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