Just a short walk from where my family lives is a community all-purpose activity center. On Tuesday and Thursday mornings, the place comes alive as women in their 50s, 60s and 70s arrive in body hugging outfits, and gather for their zumba dance exercise routines.
When I see some of them pass by, I espy their enthusiastic smiles and hear their happy chatter as if they’re going to a party or a festive affair. Then later, wiping beads of sweat from their faces and gulping water from their portable containers, they stream out and troop back to their respective homes. I’m amazed to see them looking peppier and more energetic and their chat louder than an hour earlier.
These ladies seem to be indefatigable and upbeat. When there’s a community activity, they’re the first to sign up or to volunteer. During Sunday services, they actively participate and lead the singing.
I often wonder: don’t they have health issues and family problems to weigh them down like other people? Why do they always look so spirited? Is it because of the upbeat music they dance to? Is it their camaraderie, the happy feeling of doing something together, which they know is good? The sense of belonging and being with kindred spirits?
Apparently, there is science behind it. A good sweat session such as zumba dancing stimulates the release of endorphins, which are neurochemicals produced in the pituitary gland that make you feel really good. Working out also triggers the production of serotonin and norphenylephrine, which trick the brain to induce the feeling of pleasure, happiness, and wellbeing.
So what do we need illegal uppers for? But that’s not all the good news about our amazing bodies.
Scientists have found that whenever we move a muscle (anywhere in our body), our body produces and releases power-packed protein molecules called “myokines” into our bloodstream. These go to the brain and ward off the onset of black moods and depression. This is why they are labeled as “hope” molecules. They’re now a BIG topic of research.
And to gladden your heart further, “hope” is within everyone’s reach. Whatever your age, gender and level of fitness and conditioning, all our muscles are capable of producing these “hope” molecules.
This welcome piece of information was made public by Stanford psychologist, Kelly McGonigal. In 2016, she found an obscure 2016 scientific research paper online and noticed the researchers casually using this term “hope” molecules. She became fascinated with this piece of discovery and further studying led to writing her science-based book “The Joy of Movement,” which shows us how we can all be more cheerful, resilient, depression-proof persons by being always active, on the go and in motion.
Even homebound seniors can boost their “hope” molecules by engaging in activities that aren’t necessarily physical. When we sing our favorite songs on the videoke, we cause our mouth and throat muscles and diaphragm to contract.
The same thing happens when we make a speech or casually have a talk with someone. Other soft activities may include listening to music, getting a massage, laughing with friends, or watching a favorite TV show.
When we do creative work like painting or writing, or reading a book with avid interest, or even when we solve a puzzle, the muscles of our brain secrete myokines.
I know someone who just stays idly at home and mope endlessly. He barely moves throughout the day. As we say in the native slang, “nagmumukmok.” No wonder he often feels moody and downcast. His muscles are not producing enough myokines.
Overall, because of their anti-depressant effects on the brain, these “hope molecules” need to be explored more. Can they really help people to recover from stress and trauma?
But it seems there’s more to myokines than just their anti-depressant benefits.
They are said to help reduce inflammation when you’re sick or injured, which in turn makes you feel better.
Some rehabilitation programs are being re-designed to include physical protocols that specifically trigger the production of myokines that can help their patients recover faster from knee and hip surgeries. Maybe even stroke victims?
I’ve got a lot of questions about these “hope” molecules. How long and how intense should the movement be to produce enough myokines? Do they work best when combined with other feel good chemicals such as serotonin, endorphins and others?
What about those who are deeply depressed and suicidal? Will massive infusion of these molecules into the bloodstream make a difference? Obviously, there’s more that we need to do research on.
I wish we could just bottle up these “hope” molecules so we can take them just like our daily vitamins. For there’s so much misery and pain in this world and many people need hope so badly.
So the zumba ladies in our neighborhood have been on to something after all. They’re showing us a template on how to ward off depression in old age. We all need to engage in pleasurable activities that trigger the muscles to move, preferably in the cheery camaraderie of kindred spirits. We need to walk more, laugh more and do more creative work.
Will “hope” molecules be the lasting solution to our human misery? Or are they just a kind of temporary boost as in adrenaline rush?
Personally, I wouldn’t pin my hopes too much on just “hope” molecules or feel-good chemicals if we want to make our sense of positivity and resilience truly strong and long enduring.
That kind of deeper and more holistic “hope” comes not by tricking the brain to release feel good molecules and chemicals. It emanates from a stronger, more resilient inner self that can only be built through constant exercise of our spiritual “muscles.”
Hundreds of years ago, a saintly monk arrived at the perfect balance: ora et labora. Prayer and work. Exercise the muscles through work, work out the spirit through meditation and reflection.
That way, inside you is a hope that truly springs eternal, a buoyant force that lifts you up above stress, anxiety and depression.