Fitness Tips

5 Science-Backed Ways Exercise Makes You More Resilient

Let’s be real: Life is freaking hard. Stuff happens. Unexpected stuff, like a beloved pet passing away or a fender bender on the highway during rush hour. Stressful stuff, like a tight deadline or a scheduling conflict at work. Money issues. Health issues. Relationship issues.

You name it, we all got it.

So having the resilience to deal with life’s stresses head-on is crucial; an inability to cope will almost certainly lead to anxiety and depression.

But that’s easier said than done, isn’t it? It’s no wonder that 10% of the population are on prescribed anti-depressants, and likely many more self-medicating with alcohol and recreational drugs.

But what if you could increase your mental toughness and resilience without involving pharmaceuticals?

As it turns out, you can — with exercise.

Because what your body does physically affects the chemistry of your brain and vice versa.

As Kelly McGonigal so eloquently put it in her book, The Joy of Movement:

“At the most fundamental level, rewarding movement is how your brain and body encourage you to participate in life. If you are willing to move, your muscles will give you hope. Your brain will orchestrate pleasure. And your entire physiology will adjust to help you find the energy, purpose, and courage you need to keep going.”

I can attest to this personally.

Here are some fascinating, science-backed facts that demonstrate how exercise can help you be more resilient.

1. Releases Feel-Good Chemicals

Exercise releases endorphins and dopamine, which are feel-good chemicals that relax and reduce our perception of pain.

If you’ve ever been in the midst of a really intense workout session, then you know that even if your workout gets tough, your body feels like it can keep going.

And when you finally finish or take a break, your brain releases those chemicals that make everything seem awesome again (which may be part of what makes exercising so addictive).

More recently, scientists have discovered that exercise also causes your body to produce endocannabinoids— a neurochemical that’s strikingly similar to the cannabinoids found in weed or CBD oil.

It’s thought that these special molecules could be partially responsible for the famously elusive “runner’s high” that is comparable to a mild cannabis buzz. But if you’re not a jogger, no worries — the effect can be achieved through any moderate-intensity exercise.

As if that weren’t enough happiness getting cranked into your system, your muscles also release myokines into your blood when you exercise, making you more resilient to stress. The name of this protein is Irisin, and researchers sometimes refer to it as “the hope molecule.”

That’s right; exercise literally pumps hope into your body. If that doesn’t help you build resilience, I don’t know what will!

2. Provides an Outlet for Frustration

Stress releases cortisol and adrenaline, which can actually kill brain cells. But this is why exercise is so great — it not only helps lower cortisol levels, but it stimulates the release of these BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) molecules that protect your brain.

And getting those feel-good endorphins we just talked about can also provide an emotional outlet in times of frustration or sadness.

So after a bad day at work, sometimes exercising can be just the antidote you need.

High-intensity exercise is perfect for this. Try kickboxing, circuit training, or a HIIT spinning sesh.

One of the reasons I like exercising after work is it helps me sweat out all the day’s aggravations and little annoyances that otherwise get bottled up.

I find the days I exercise when I’m a little bit crusty are the best because I bring a little more verve to my workouts, and by the time I finish, I’m in a much better mood.

3. Instills Self-Confidence

It turns out that when we feel good about ourselves and what we can accomplish physically, it teaches us to be more confident about what we can achieve outside the gym.

The confidence I gained from working out regularly was nothing short of life-changing. When I finished my first 12-week program, I couldn’t believe how far I’d come in such a short time.

It made me feel like I could achieve anything.

I thought, if I can survive three sets of ninja jump burpees, what else can I do?

That kind of confidence prepares you for life’s challenges.

The self-esteem/exercise connection has been well-documented in the research as well.

For example, one study of 84 male university students found that those who worked out for 45 minutes three times a week had more self-confidence after eight weeks than those who did not follow an exercise regime.

The thing is, it’s not just the act of exercising that helps you cope with stress but how good you feel about yourself when exercising.

So if you’re someone who has trouble getting started, try this: don’t worry so much about working out — instead, focus on strengthening your emotional connection to exercise.

That way, once you actually do start to work out, your mind will already be on board with the idea (because you’ve already built a positive emotional connection), and you will enjoy that physical activity experience even more than usual.

4. Regulates Emotions

Research shows that exercise can help regulate emotions, which is crucial for handling difficult challenges in life.

Part of this is the reasons we already talked about like the feel-good hormones produced during exercise and how sweating it out can release your frustrations.

But another reason is because of something called proprioception, which is your mind’s ability to sense your body’s movements.

You can use this proprioception to build resilience.

For example, if you make powerful movements with your body, like when you lift heavy weights, your mind will think, “I feel powerful.”

Push yourself an extra mile in your weekend run, and your mind will think, “I feel tenacious.”

You can bet after I finish any of my Jillian Michaels workouts, my mind is thinking, “I feel resilient!” (FYI, her program “BodyShred” is practically a masterclass in resilience!)

5. Grounds You in the Present

It’s so easy to let obstacles in our life consume our thoughts and overtake us with worry.

As someone with a history of anxiety, I know all too well how rumination and fear of the future can take over the brain and ruin your life.

Part of resilience is the ability to focus on what you can do in the here and now.

And nothing makes you more present than exercise.

I think of exercise almost as a kind of moving meditation because it forces you to focus on your breathing and think about what’s going on right now.

Think about it. How much are you fretting about the future when you’re trying to break your planking PR? Chances are, you’re extremely focused present — almost too focused!

Next time you’re face to face with a difficult situation in your life that’s making you anxious, try going for a 15-minute jog (or even a brisk walk). Focus on your putting one foot in front of the other and sync your breathing.

I can almost guarantee you will feel more calm and resilient by the end of those 15 minutes.

The effect will be even better if you run/walk outside, preferably through a trail or park where you will reap the benefits of “Green Exercise.”

Green exercise is any physical activity you do outside in nature that is scientifically proven to improve your mental health and boost your overall sense of well-being. Studies show that even 15 minutes walking in nature is enough to feel more capable in the face of adversity.

Final Thoughts

At the end of the day, a healthy body facilitates a healthy mind — and a healthy mind is better equipped to deal with life’s inevitable setbacks.

So although there’s no magic pill that will erase your problems, exercising regularly can make you feel more prepared to tackle them.

I, for one, am glad to have exercise to turn to when life gets tough.

If you’re new to working out, there’s nothing wrong with starting small. Remember, even a 15-minute walk can make all the difference!

So next time life gets you down, get moving — your body and mind will thank you!

Originally published on Medium.

Corrie Alexander is a former ISSA-certified personal trainer, home fitness advocate, and founder of The Fit Careerist. A proponent of personal growth and a self-proclaimed fitness app-junkie, Corrie shares tips and product reviews with the goal of helping others on their own fitness journey.

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