I get it. I was a spin instructor and a body sculpt fitness coach in New York City for 9 years. Chisel, sculpt, sweat — those were the holy grail fitness KPIs (key performance indicators) to live by. And I felt it, the rush, that immediate gratification. The tightness, the sore muscles and the pain didn’t become real until the next day.
But the question is — do we work out like this because it’s actually good for us? Or is it because America’s fitness crazed culture has given us no better alternative?
When it comes to our physical, mental and emotional health — harder just doesn’t mean better. A new study from Cell Metabolism has hinted that excessive HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) workouts may actually be harming our mitochondria, the very cells that energize our whole body. In another recent study from Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, researchers found that moderate, gentler exercise — not strenuous, intense, short bursts — boast more metabolic advantages.
Personal trainers have warned that cortisol-inducing, high impact workouts like CrossFit, HIIT, running and weight training have been giving rise to injury rates. When we don’t give our bodies a chance to relax and recharge, we perpetuate the very stress cycle we want to get relief from.
It’s no wonder that despite all the focus on cult fitness, America sits at #46 on the global longevity list and #12 on the global obesity list. Meanwhile, Japan, a country with hardly any gym culture, has the highest life-expectancy in the world and one of the lowest obesity rates. Being half Japanese, it’s a wonder I took the cultural bait of a cortisol spike myself.
We gravitate towards more intense types of workouts thinking they will make us happier and healthier. But we shouldn’t have to strain our muscles, endure injury and exhaust our minds to feel good about ourselves. If we truly want to feel happier and healthier, we need to practice movement and mindfulness techniques that are designed to make us happy. Focusing on working out your glutes isn’t guaranteed to make you happy, but making time to practice connecting mind to body with intention can, according to science.
What we need is balance. And at a time when most of us are exposed to a baseline level of constant everyday stress, we need to break up with cortisol-inducing workouts.
So I made a change. Instead of hitting the mat for burpees and planks, I break my day with a “happiness workout” called a Joy Practice — a potent, science-backed fusion of modern and ancient eastern and western methods that activate the full brain-body connection.
And here’s what happened, with just a few weeks of regular practice.
My stress levels dwindled.
Instead of starting my days by spiking my cortisol levels, I flooded my brain and body with dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin and endorphins — the 4 neurochemicals that make humans feel happy. I noticed my neck loosening up, my jaw unclenching, my mind open and increased ease in my days. Instead of crashing every afternoon, my energy levels felt sustained until the moment I hit my pillow to rest. When a stressful situation did arise, I surprised myself by side-stepping a doom spiral. Instead, I found myself breathing through it and addressing my stress head on.
My relationships improved dramatically.
When we feel happier, our joy ripples out to the third degree — positively impacting our entire community. Just a few days into my consistent Joy Practice, I felt more patient, grateful and compassionate. I was less in my head and more communicative, and my usual triggers no longer registered as deeply. With all the focus on self-love and oxytocin release, I felt more in tune with my sexuality and my love life got richer. Suddenly, I understood why studies have been revealing that pushing your fitness into high gear lowers libido for both men and women.
I craved unhealthy foods less.
For me, all those calories burned in the morning meant I was constantly turning to snacks in an automated effort to balance off all the energy I’d lost. I was craving sweets, salty things, carbs — anything that gave me a quick energy hit, only to lose it again. When I switched to gentle, energizing movement and mindfulness practices as my go-to workout, I may have burned fewer calories, but my energy levels stayed high throughout the day, keeping my cravings and emotional eating in check.
It’s wild to think that 90% of our mood-boosting hormone, Serotonin, is made in the gut. And the food we put in our bodies has a direct effect on our brain and our mood. The less junk I put in, the more grounded I felt.
My skin started glowing.
This was the most unexpected benefit of my joy journey. While I always like to imagine that I “glisten” instead of sweat while I’m practicing joy—after a few weeks I actually noticed that my skin began to carry a new kind of glow. It turns out that just like the gut-brain connection, our bodies also foster a mind-skin connection. And if you (like me) didn’t know that psychodermatology, the science of how your feelings can affect your skin, is a thing—it is. Not only do stressful situations (like burning out your body through back-to-back-to-back HIIT workouts) release inflammatory molecules in the body that can affect our skin, but a new study shows that there is also a link between acne and depression.
I slept deeper and felt more rested each day.
As a busy mama of a lively two-year-old and a new puppy, it feels like years since I’ve gotten real, restful sleep. Despite my best efforts to stick to a consistent sleep schedule, (nixing caffeine and screen time before bed) — I often found myself tossing and turning, or waking up with a sore, achy body. It’s intuitive to think that getting better sleep makes us happier — but what I found in practice is that focusing on my joy every day also helped me effortlessly fall into the kind of sleep I could only dream of a few months ago. Eager to know more, I discovered that a group of Cornell University researchers conducted a recent study to examine an association between having a sustained, positive outlook and getting good quality shut eye at night.
I started having fun every single day.
And this was the game-changer. Instead of that little pit of dread in my stomach — “I need to work out today,” or “I know this is going to hurt, but it’s good for me,” — I felt a giddiness of anticipation in my belly. Every morning, my Joy Practice is a self-care ritual I can look forward to. I laugh, I let out tears of joy, I jump around and crawl like a wild animal, I shake off trauma from my body, I balance my energy and I let my body move naturally, gently, lovingly. Every day brings something new, and every day connects me deeper to myself. And best of all — that playfulness helps me show up as a better human in my work, my relationships and my community.
And the best part? This is just the beginning. Joy is an active practice—one I know I’ll be spending my whole life getting better at. But if this is what the ride is like, I’m here for the long haul.
RADHA AGRAWAL is an entrepreneur, international speaker and author of the book Belong. She co-founded the Daybreaker community as well as THINX underwear. Find her at radhaagrawal.com.