It happens often. Not every ride. But often. I’ll be riding along, maybe even pushing into a tough headwind, and I’ll suddenly realize I am smiling. Despite feeling a tad bit goofy when I notice the smile, I smile even more.
How fortunate I am to be doing something that causes me to burst into a spontaneous, genuine smile!
I’m not sure when I started noticing the smiles or even when I started smiling on rides. I do remember several years ago on Biking Across Kansas, after riding the hilly last day into White Cloud, Kansas, seeing my friend and fellow BAKer Mike Minihan and hearing him say, “You were just smiling as you rode those hills!” I don’t think I had even realized that I was smiling as I rode past miles of corn fields and up and down miles and miles of hills. The fact that he noticed made an impression on me.
That’s a short excerpt from Chapter 27 of the book I am writing. The chapter itself is more about noticing when I am smiling than about simply smiling itself, but I want to talk about the smiling today.
This is the toughest time of year for me, as it is for a lot of people. We all have different reasons, and it affects us to greater or lesser degrees, but there are many of us who are not fully on board with the songs proclaiming that this is the “most wonderful time of the year.”
The core message of my book and coaching work is that when we recognize that we can choose our perspective, we can liberate ourselves from the victim mindset, optimize our lives and make the difference we are meant to make.
I totally failed to embrace and embody my own message this week.
I will spare you the whiny details. Suffice it to say that I allowed myself to be swallowed by overwhelm, as I tried to complete my (online) Christmas shopping, while getting sucked into the whirlwind of a scarcity mindset around time and money. I’m not over it yet, but I have promised myself that I will really, truly, this time learn from this misery and find another way to approach the holidays before next Christmas. At this point, it comes down to damage control, but I intend to live my message more effectively throughout the 2021 holiday season.
Regardless of the time of year, one powerful tool for boosting our moods and lifting our spirits is moving our bodies.
I’m writing this on Saturday morning. The boys are asleep, so the house is quiet. I am sitting by my front window and looking out at the sunshine. The wind chill is only 27 degrees at the moment, and it won’t get above 37, but, layered in warm gear, it will be warm enough to ride my bike. I am grateful to have the flexibility in my schedule today to ride at the warmest part of the day. I’ll start gearing up around 2 p.m. Hopefully, the sun will still be shining then. I can feel the excitement in my belly when I anticipate my ride. It will only be 15-20 miles, since this is the off season, and I would choose warmer weather, if that were an option, but I get to ride!
For me, cycling goes beyond the well-documented mood boost exercise provides through the release of endorphins—feel-good hormones released by our brains and nervous system when we exercise. Because I regularly reflect on what a gift it is to be able to ride my bike, I experience another level of joy through cycling. But, any form of purposeful physical activity can give us a mood boost, and endorphins are a big part of that.
Even if you haven’t found a form of exercise that makes you erupt into a spontaneous smile (I encourage you to keep searching for one that you love that much!), and even if you revel in winter wonderland and relish the festivities of the holiday season, physical activity can add a spark of joy to your days. Endorphins play an important role in that. Exercise has been shown in many studies over the years to be at least as, and sometimes more, effective than pharmaceutical interventions for depression. Of course, it is crucial to seek professional help, if you are struggling with depression, and there are times when medication may be needed to alleviate particular types of mental health issues. Even so, exercise is a great complement to medicinal treatment for depression and anxiety.
I feel most myself on the bike. Whatever form of physical activity you choose, it is a terrific way to bolster your self-esteem and self-confidence. It feels terrific to follow through on what you say you are going to do. Even if it were a dreary, overcast day, as long as the wind chill was above freezing (and maybe even if it was a bit below freezing), I would ride today. If conditions were too miserable, I would do some other form of exercise. It is part of who I am, and it feels wonderful to keep promises to myself.
How can you benefit from the mood-boosting effects of physical activity, no matter the time of year?
- Try, try again. If you don’t already have a favorite form of exercise, experiment. Don’t write yourself off as a non-exerciser. It’s too important, for so many reasons. There are countless ways to move your body. Just to start your mental (and maybe physical) wheels turning, here are some ideas. This is not an exhaustive list!
- Strength training with body weight, weights, bands, kettlebells and more
- Group fitness classes
- Team sports like basketball, baseball, softball, soccer or volleyball
- Racquet sports like tennis, pickle ball or racquet ball
- Find a friend. Or not. Some of us love solo pursuits, or at least activities that we can do alone or choose to do with other people—like cycling, running or walking. Others may want or need the companionship or accountability of a friend or group.
- Mix and match. A well-rounded fitness program includes exercise for your cardiorespiratory system, as well as activities to build strength, enhance flexibility and challenge balance. Don’t let that stop you, though. While that may be an ideal to work toward, anything is better than nothing. More is better than less, to a point. If you don’t already have a consistent program, pick one activity from the list above or your own idea. Then, add another on a couple days of the week. For example: Walk on Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. Do yoga (Try Hatha, Power, Vinyasa or Yin. Yoga with Kassandra has hundreds of terrific practice options, organized by style or length.) on Saturday. Do some resistance training with bands on Monday and Wednesday.
- Enlist a coach or trainer. Are you intimidated by the idea of adding exercise to your life? Do you not know where to start, so you don’t start at all? Give yourself the gift (or ask for it for Christmas) of a session or a package with a coach or trainer who can design a plan for you and help you develop a strategy for success in your particular circumstances.
- Build a habit. Depending on the study, research has shown that it takes anywhere from 14 to 66 days to instill a habit. The reality probably depends more on what the habit is and a person’s history with adopting positive or losing negative habits. Again, a coach can help you incorporate your habit into your life if you don’t know where to start or need accountability. There are several ways to build a habit.
- Schedule it. Plan each week and know when you are going to exercise and what you are going to do. Make it non-negotiable.
- Set yourself up for success. Want to go for a run in the morning? Set out your gear the night before. Know you won’t go to the gym? Plan to walk outside instead. What needs to be in place to make it easy to keep your promise to yourself? Plan ahead and make sure it is in place. No excuses.
- Make it appealing. Buy yourself some nice walking shoes. Get some cool yoga clothes or a new bike jersey. Ride, run or walk in an interesting location.
- Decide you are a person who exercises. Identify as a cyclist, a runner, a walker a swimmer, a triathlete, etc. This is what you do because it is who you choose to be.
- Join an event. I still remember the moment in 1996 when I crossed the finish line of the New York City Marathon and thought, “I am an athlete.” Even though I exercised prior to training for the marathon, which was my first, it was a transformational experience that set the stage for becoming a cyclist, going back to grad school for a Master’s degree in Exercise Science and many of the things I have undertaken.
The most important thing about exercise is that you do it. It is a lifeline for me all the time, but especially this time of year. It helps me to stay sane, and it helps me to manage my emotions. It’s not a panacea, but it is a tool that can help you find your smile when life gets heavy.
I’m editing this on Sunday morning. I did ride 19 miles yesterday. Even though I should have worn a windbreaker and never really got warm enough, and despite having given myself a black eye in a nasty Christmas gift wrapping accident a couple hours before I rode, I noticed myself smiling as I was riding north into the light, but cold northwest wind. It was a highlight of my day.
I’d love to help you incorporate mood-boosting exercise into your life. Leave a comment or send me a private message to let me know if this content is helpful. Would you like more like it? What, specifically, can I do to help you build an exercise habit?
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