Exercising for Emotional Resilience

Exercising your way to Resilience

With so many summer sporting challenges underway and the subject of resilience forefront in my mind, I started to think about how we each use exercise for different reasons. For some it may be stress busting, others a personal challenge or to lose weight.

What I find particularly interesting is what exercise gives us back in the short and long term. This benefit is often so much more than many of us realise. I’ve recently written a number of articles exploring resilience; exploring what it is and how it can ebb and flow throughout our lives. Exercise is one of the keystones of resilience, so let’s explore it further.

Exercise produces chemicals we most often associate with an increased feeling of fun and pleasure. It might not feel like that as we address a tough hill in training, but it’s there once we’ve achieved the summit! These same chemicals are great pain killers and they give us improved mental focus. Maybe that’s why we often need to go out to train or walk and ‘think’.

Most people will have heard of something called ‘Runners High’. This a euphoric rush which can be triggered when you push your body consistently over the longer period. When we exercise with others, these feelings can increase further. This often-heady feeling can turn a sporting event into something really special. It can be potentially quite addictive. You have only to look at social media posts from finishers of events – sharing broken personal bests and anecdotes. Even that broken chain, puncture or bruise gets a special mention. That’s because the combination of ‘good’ chemicals creates a special feeling on event day. This can enhance the feeling behind a good result but can also make the challenges overcome in the event feel special too.

Months and years of training delivers ongoing benefits to the body and mind. If you exercise regularly, this brings with it a more consistent level of ‘good mood’ chemicals flowing through your system. These are great at combating stress and improving your mental and physical resilience in the longer term.

Whilst I’m no physician, we know that our physiology improves with exercise as well. Things like muscle tone, heart health and lung capacity. Even bone density improves. Exercise builds resilience against physiological illnesses. Of course, as a counsellor, what I’m interested in is how the mind is impacted by such activity and how can we use it to improve our resilience in managing everyday challenges.

Let’s look at three of the chemicals that exercise benefits us with:

Endorphins – These are associated with feeling good, helping us relax and are natural painkillers. Although interestingly, the pain experience of exercise can also release endorphins. Regular exercise increases the flow of this feel good chemical and can be a wonderful counteraction for mental stress and release physical tension. This release of tension in itself can make us feel more resilient when dealing with situations at home and work. Food can also help boost endorphins, although we need to be careful with endorphin boosting foods – spice and chocolate are my personal favorites!

Serotonin – We most often associate this chemical with depression. However, let’s look at the flip-side. Good levels of serotonin are good news all round for your health. It impacts mood, memory and helps to improve your sleep. Whilst there is more research to be done here, it is believed that aerobic exercise is most beneficial to serotonin production demonstrate improved mood. Here’s something interesting – your gut produces about 90% of your serotonin. Whilst there’s more to be explored here – it begs the question as to how what you consume affects this production and therefore your mood. Maybe that’s one for another article…

Dopamine – This chemical is seen as our ‘motivation’ chemical driving us to our perceived rewards. It helps with our focus, attention and problem-solving. It’s believed that this is the chemical that has supported the human progression – driving our competitive edge and perseverance. Its particularly key in our motor control and emotional regulation. Low levels of dopamine will leave you feeling fatigued, feel unmotivated, impact memory and your ability to concentrate. Dopamine can be boosted naturally by both exercise and the right food.

Spot the trend with all of these – exercise and good diet. Exercise builds on our mental resilience – helping us combat issues such as depression, anxiety and lowers stress levels. It helps us sleep and builds on our self-esteem. As with most things in life, a balance is needed. Good diet, rest and mental self-awareness is as important as exercise itself. A few months ago, I wrote about the pillars of building our resilience levels. Exercise is just one of these. We need others such as feeling at ease in our environment, both at work and home. Similarly, the support of friends and family build still further on a feeling of resilience.

After an accident at the start of the year, I lost my ability to exercise as usual. I love cycling and yet my poor bike is gathering a layer of dust. This will be the case for some months yet. However, this temporary life change led me to explore how I can find other ways of getting the positive exercise chemicals. It also made me challenge what other ‘Resilience Pillars’ I should lean on to maintain my mental health. I discovered a punch bag would let me work up a sweat without damaging my knee further. I decided to really go to town with my physio exercises and make them my big daily challenge. More recently, I’ve been allowed in the pool for exercises and this new-found freedom is wonderful but also a little frustrating as I feel so very close to doing more. Simply talking this through is helpful as is remembering to ‘stop’ and take stock of progress.

On low days, I’ve had spicy food (endorphins) and tried hard to take on board as many vegetables as possible. Doing these things as well as looking to the other resilience activities has actually allowed me to take a step back and given me space to think about how I want my mental and physical health to be moving forward. Despite still being unable to take my beloved bike out, I feel mentally strong thanks to some simple plans.

So, you could be a seasoned athlete, simply love to go for a walk or doing gardening. By exercising you are not just boosting your physical health and resilience, you are also doing something special for your mind’s health and wellbeing.


Other articles in the Resilience Series:

Resilience from Everyday Adversity

Perception of Resilience

Resilience in the Modern Workplace

NOTE: I should stress that Resilience is a relatively new line of thought being researched by various bodies relative to other theories. What I discuss here is from my observations as well as drawing on emerging research and reports. Such progressing evidence is likely to continue to develop over time and I’m sure we will be revisiting this subject as new research is published.

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