Can eight minutes of exercise make you happier? There’s only one awful, embarrassing way to find out …

Emma Beddington
Emma Beddington

Like half of all British women, I’ve barely broken a sweat in the last year. Time to investigate the Joy Workout

Exhausted-looking woman resting her head on exercise ball.

Can exercise spark joy and if not can I bin it, Marie Kondo style? I write this from my traditional position: a hunched, static ball, like a gargoyle (expression and posture). As one of the 47% of British women who have done no vigorous exercise in the past year, I hardly move. It has got worse recently: the dog’s too old for long walks, pilates is too far away, meaning I’m paying £35 a month just to feel guilty, and I’m really busy, OK? (If you could raise your heart rate with defensiveness and excuses, I’d be fine.) The past six months have been my least physically active since I had glandular fever at 19, a time I look back on with nostalgic longing: sleep for 14 hours, read for 10 minutes, snack, then back to sleep.

I feel bad: stiff, sore and insomniac. But is that because sitting pretzeled in front of a laptop for 12 hours a day then moving to the sofa to stare at a larger screen is objectively bad for me, or because I am culturally conditioned to believe it’s bad? OK, it’s the first one, but the peer pressure is crushing too. Every middle-aged woman in the media has chiselled deltoids, a six-pack and a story about how happy getting ripped made them. I’m delighted we, collectively, will soon be able to literally crush the patriarchy, but I’m definitely not pulling (lifting) my weight.

I need to move this tired lump of meat, but I have never found exercise genuinely pleasurable, which is why I’ve been eyeing up the eight-and-a-half-minute Joy Workout. Some joy would be nice – simple, wholesome Freude, rather than the Schaden variety, which seems to be the only one on British shelves currently. Plus, no one is so busy they can’t spare eight and a half minutes – I spent longer than that looking at the Daily Star lettuce last week.

Designed by health psychologist Kelly McGonigal, the workout combines movements shown to elicit positive emotions and to be recognisably joyful, crossculturally, and is set to a soundtrack “aimed at enhancing positive emotions”. There’s a video to follow, in seven themed sections. I tried it and present my findings in case you, too, seek joy through (manageably brief) movement.

Starting the Reach section, I realise I was expecting it to be less … exercise-y? The reaching is hell on my tight shoulders. Sway, a gently expansive side-to-side motion, makes me look like one of my aunties at a wedding before Come on Eileen comes on; I move away from the window. “How would it feel to throw your fists in the air?” the Bounce section asks, to which the answer is “terrible”. Shake is a moment of respite, but it takes six seconds of Jump for me to hiss: “I hate this.” And when the perky voiceover suggests I “try some jumping jacks”, I default to a wounded-rhino bellow of anguish. Celebrate is supposed to look like throwing confetti; here it sounds like a cracking, popping wake for my spine.

The final section, Freestyle, invites you to improvise, which I do with all the loose, rhythmic abandon of one of those heavy-cloaked priests at the Queen’s funeral. Then I notice I have a new, unwelcome email: I check it, curse, then sit down and start work again. This is why I can’t have nice things, like functioning shoulders.

I’m not sure you can rustle up a batch of joy by following a special exercise recipe. It tends to creep up when you aren’t expecting it, I find. The closest I come at the moment is riding my bike. I’ve never had the balance or the bravery to cycle but I took a beginners’ course this year, and with encouragement, kindness and the occasional prod, something clicked. Now I look for excuses to cycle along quiet streets and cycle paths, feeling fast (for me – I still get overtaken by infants and extremely elderly people) and free. Sometimes, on my bike, I’m momentarily consumed by childlike glee: the rush of air, the playfulness, the sense that being alive is amazing, really. Is that what the exercise fiends are talking about? I suppose that could catch on.


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