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Exercise is about happiness, not getting ripped


I was swimming freestyle laps the other day in the wellness pool at the Stafford YMCA, the only person in any of the lanes. I’ve done my share of serious swimming, but it had been awhile since I’d been in the pool, and I was enjoying myself.

Over next to me, treading and stretching in a wide area at the deep end, were a dozen women of a certain age, practicing water aerobics or water zumba or water something. They were having a good time, too.

Actually, judging by the happy expressions on their faces and the volume of their conversations—exercising all the while—I’d say they were having a great time.

Later that day, one of my yoga students sent me a note on Facebook: “Thanks for the class this morning. It was a lot of fun.”

I thought about that for a minute. Fun? My power yoga class? Sweaty, maybe. Intense, sure. But fun? Like water aerobics?

And then I remembered the 10 minutes before we started our Sun Salutations, when folks came in and greeted one another and hugged, and a dozen conversations broke out about workouts and plans and aches and pains and families.

I also remembered a moment in the practice when we were all balancing in Tree Pose—or trying to. I was in the front, next to my friend Heidi, an accomplished yogi who on this particular day couldn’t find her balance no matter how hard she tried.

Pretty soon, thanks to Heidi’s wobbling, I lost my concentration—and my balance, too. Both of us started laughing. Once that happened, it was all over. Pretty soon the rest of the class was laughing as well and nearly everybody fell out of Tree.

Come to think of it, it’s a rare yoga class where we don’t break out into a big group belly laugh at some point.

As you think about exercise, forget losing weight or getting ripped or lowering your cholesterol. Researchers say the principal reason we exercise—or continue to exercise once we get started, especially for all of us of a certain age—is that it makes us happy.

Study after study has shown that exercise increases happiness and self-esteem, reduces stress and anxiety, and helps lift symptoms of depression. Psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky, author of “The How of Happiness,” is a true believer.

“Exercise may very well be the most effective instant happiness booster of all activities,” she says in a video posted on the Greater Good website.

The New York Times’ Jane Brody, quoting University of Michigan researcher Michelle Segar, says if we want to encourage people to exercise, we should “stop framing moderate exercise as a medical prescription” and let folks in on the big secret—that exercise makes us happy, plain and simple.

“Immediate rewards are more motivating than distant ones,” Segar told Brody. “Feeling happy and less stressed is more motivating than not getting heart disease or cancer, maybe, someday in the future.”

Segar calls physical activity “an elixir of life.”

In a recent study of 1,690 overweight middle-age men and women, Segar found that, especially for the women, the most influential factor in continuing to exercise wasn’t long-term health benefits. It was “enhancing daily well-being.”

In other words, feeling happy.

And having friends to exercise with increases the happiness quotient considerably.

In my yoga classes—and in that water zumba class the other day at the Y, and in other fitness groups I’ve been a member of—what  I see and hear are people letting themselves breathe deeply, letting their guards down, letting themselves connect with one another, letting themselves laugh.

As much as I enjoyed my solo swim the other day, it was nothing compared to how I felt back in graduate school when I was swimming regularly with an intense collection of ex-college swimmers and triathletes, called the Lunch Bunch.

Challenging workouts? You bet.

Competitive? Definitely.

Fun? Always made me happy.

Steve Watkins, a retired University of Mary Washington professor, is a yoga teacher and author. You can contact him through his website,, or his Facebook page, Steve Watkins Yoga.

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