Can Being Grateful Motivate us to Exercise?

Can Being Grateful Motivate Us to Exercise More?

Many, many studies have shown that getting more exercise is good for our brain.  It releases endorphins that elevate our mood and sense of well-being, increases circulation in the brain that leads to clear thinking, and alters hormones in our bodies that translate to brain health. 

But can it happen the other way around?  Can working on elevating our mood help us to exercise more?

The answer to this question came in a somewhat roundabout way. 

A study conducted by scientists Emmons and McCullough formed three groups.  One group was told to journal once a week and list 5 things that happened during the week that they were grateful for (like a beautiful sunset).  Another group was told to journal once a week about 5 things that had been a hassle for them (like couldn’t find parking).  A third group was told to journal once a week about things that affected them, but were not given instruction as to whether they should be positive or negative. 

After 10 weeks, the group that had focused on gratitude ended up 25% happier than the other two groups.  Astonishingly, the gratitude group also exercised almost 1.5 hours longer per week than the other groups! 

What could be going on here?

Why Negativity Can be a Downer

Daniel Amen, in his best-selling book, Change Your Brain, Change Your Life, notes that emotional tagging of events is critical to survival.  If we tag an event negatively (“I hate to exercise”), it can cause an avoidance response.  If we tag an event positively (“Exercise always makes me feel better.”), it can drive us to action. 

Part of the problem is that we are very much biased toward negative tagging.  Apparently our survival is more dependent on being able to perceive a threat to our being, rather than notice when something good is happening.

Another problem is that focusing on the negative can cause us to isolate the negative thought and lose sight of the big picture.  Once we have started to dwell on something negative, it is often difficult to stop the ruminating.  After all, life is full of things to worry about.  That focus on the negative, which is often unconscious or habitual, can make it difficult to visualize any other circumstances for ourselves. 

Jonathan Haidt, in his book The Happiness Hypothesis, explains that once we take a negative stance, we look for evidence that supports it.  If we find some evidence—so that our position makes sense—we stop thinking.  When that happens, often people will not initiate a change of thinking for themselves. 

What Happens When We are Grateful?

As mentioned in the study above, we become happier.  In another study addressing the power of positive affect, there was an important discovery.

A group that was given “positivity instruction” began to pursue goals that would lead to further positivity.  In other words, the research showed that positive affect can be an implicit motivator. (as in, “I want more of that!”)

Jonathan Haidt also notes that gratitude increases one’s sense of control over a situation.  A sense of control can bring about an increase in engagement, energy, and happiness.  This can translate into sustained optimism, the ability to consider new options, set new goals, and, yes, even exercise more. 


© 2020 Kristen Carter. All rights reserved.

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