Yes, Being Thankful Comes With Legit Health Benefits

Danielle Zickl
Photo credit: Thomas Barwick - Getty Images

From Bicycling

  • Research has shown that practicing gratitude on a regular basis can help improve your overall long-term health by helping reduce your risk of problems like heart disease and high blood pressure.
  • Keeping a gratitude journal, writing thank-you notes, or regularly expressing gratitude to others are great ways to practice it daily.

With the holiday season upon us, it’s a good time to take stock of what you’re grateful for. Whether you count your blessings around the dinner table at family gatherings or just think about them internally, there are legitimate health benefits that come from regularly practicing gratitude—it’s not just for Thanksgiving.

Research has shown that making time to practice gratitude helps improve your sleep, reduce your blood pressure, lower your levels of inflammation, and heal from injury faster.

No, writing one thank-you note won’t immediately lower your cholesterol, but making it a daily habit will pay off in the long run, according to Glenn Fox, Ph.D., who is the head of program design, strategy, and outreach at the University of Southern California’s Performance Science Institute and has done extensive research on how gratitude impacts human performance.

“When you experience the feeling of gratitude, your brain releases a combination of dopamine, oxytocin, and endorphins,” Fox told Runner’s World.

If you’re not familiar, dopamine is responsible for feelings of happiness and pleasure. Oxytocin is vital in helping you reduce stress, and endorphins can help relieve pain and also boost happiness. Research has shown that feelings of chronic stress and unhappiness can take a toll on your body. For instance, a 2018 study published in the journal Psychological Science found that long-term stress can lead to problems such as heart disease and high blood pressure later in life.

Showing more gratitude also calms you and lowers your heart rate, according to Fox. A consistently lower resting heart rate—which is typically around 60 to 100 beats per minute (bpm) for average adults and can be closer to 40 bpm for those who are very in shape—suggests that your heart is functioning optimally and efficiently, according to the Mayo Clinic. However, a 2013 study published in the journal Heart found that having a consistently high heart rate was linked to high blood pressure, cholesterol, body weight, and risk of early death.

Aside from positively impacting your your physical health, practicing gratitude can impact your mental health and workout performance, too.

“Psychologists will tell you that positive thoughts lead to positive emotions and that often leads to positive outcomes,” running coach Janet Hamilton, C.S.C.S., owner of Atlanta-based company Running Strong previously told Runner’s World. “I often tell my athletes to practice having a positive mantra.”

Plus, a 2019 study published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science found that those who showed themselves compassion felt happier and more energized than those who engaged in negative self-talk.

According to Fox, keeping a journal, writing thank-you notes (or just expressing your thanks in person) are great ways to practice gratitude daily.

“The goal is to want to do these things and look forward to them—you shouldn’t feel like you’re forcing it,” he said. “Find a time of day that works best and would be the most productive for you, and start small—even as little as 30 seconds. Then work your way up gradually.”

[Want to fly up hills? Climb! gives you the workouts and mental strategies to conquer your nearest peak.]

In a Runner’s World Instagram post from August that asked how runners got through the rest of their long runs if they hit the wall, one person, Melissa Emery, talked about the importance of gratitude.

“Once I hit a wall, I spend the next mile focusing on the things I am grateful for. ‘I am grateful for this beautiful view, I am grateful for the sidewalk, I am grateful for the sun, I am grateful for my legs, and even though they hurt, I know I can do this, etc.’ By the time the mile ends, the wall has been lifted and I continue on,” she wrote.

While this specific example relates to running, the approach could be applied to everything from a long ride to a hard climb to a tough workout. And Fox agrees with this approach.

Remind yourself that every day and every ride is an opportunity, he said. It just might make your workout feel better and easier.

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