Build Resilience with Regular Exercise
By Barbara A. Brehm
A man once worked with a personal trainer to design an exercise program. He asked his trainer early in their work together, "How often should I exercise?" The trainer replied, "Try for three times a week, unless you get really busy. In that case, you should try to exercise every day."
Many of us have watched our stress levels rise along with the busy-ness of our lives. Challenging economic times, rising food and fuel prices, uncertainty in many areas of the world and job insecurity can leave us feeling anxious and exhausted. The holiday pace can stretch our frayed nerves even further.
When the demands on our time and energy seem to pile up, it is more tempting than ever to postpone self-care, and decide to skip our exercise session. Yet, these are the times when self-care is most urgently needed to reduce feelings of stress, build emotional resilience, and replenish our good humor and good will.
Researchers have found that participation in regular physical activity is strongly linked to emotional resilience — the ability to cope effectively with the challenges life throws our way, and stay healthy despite stressful circumstances. Emotional resilience is also linked to attitude and outlook, as well as feelings of social support and connection. When the going gets tough, the energy you put into your emotional and physical health pays double dividends, preventing chronic health problems in the future, and helping you cope more effectively with the challenges of the present.
How does exercise increase resilience? In many overlapping ways. Here are a few of the most powerful:
Improvements in mood. Exercise probably improves mood in several ways. Biochemical changes in the brain and body may help you feel more relaxed and positive. Exercise can also provide a break from work and worry — a time out that leaves you feeling more refreshed and rejuvenated.
Increased energy. People often report increased energy levels with regular exercise. Even when a workout leaves you feeling physically tired, you may still feel emotionally calm but energized, and better able to concentrate and complete important tasks. Most people associate feeling more energetic with feeling better.
More self-confidence. Self-confidence may improve when you feel good about making progress toward your self-improvement goals. Some people find that they feel better about their body and appearance as they become stronger. Improvements in core strength and posture translate into more-confident first impressions.
Better health. You feel better when you feel healthy. You need your health to do all of the things you want to do. Who can afford the time it takes to get sick? Regular exercise helps prevent or control high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, obesity and heart disease. Muscle stretching and strengthening are often prescribed for orthopedic problems, such as back and knee pain. Appropriate physical activity reduces aches and pains, and the energy drain associated with disability.
Less stress, anxiety and depression. Research has shown that regular exercise is as effective as medication for mild to moderate feelings of stress, anxiety and depression. Physical activity can help change the channel on negative thoughts and feelings. Improvements in the body's biochemistry are probably part of the explanation for these positive changes.
Improvements in quality of life, especially for older adults. Older adults are likely to see benefits from exercise in many areas. They may experience improvements in memory and other areas of cognitive function. Strength training may lead to better balance, along with stronger muscles.
Development of other healthful habits. Participation in regular exercise indicates a person is making self-care a priority. This resolve to take care of oneself often spills over into other areas. People who exercise often develop an interest in nutrition, and start consuming more nourishing foods. They may quit smoking, eat healthy snacks or share good jokes with the worker in the next cubicle.
Increased focus on fun and friends. People who make time for regular physical activity often drag their friends and family along. They create opportunities to spend time with people they enjoy, and to have fun.
Barbara A. Brehm, Ed.D., is professor of exercise and sport studies at Smith College, Northampton, Mass.
© 2008 Fitness Management Magazine