Can exercise help build strong mental resilience?

It’s no secret that exercise helps increase muscle mass and cardio fitness, but did you know it helps with our ability to handle stress and difficult situations too? Vhi Health Coach, Micheli Romão, discusses what happens in our bodies and brains during exercise and how it helps us to build mental resilience. 

What happens in our body and brain when we exercise?

Exercise has powerful effects on both our body and brain. Some of these impacts include:

  • Improving brain function: our brains require a lot of energy to function. We can think of our body like a machine, with lots of different parts that interact and talk to each other constantly. When you exercise, such as running, you’re increasing the blood flow throughout your body. Your breathing is changing, your heart rate is changing, and your blood and oxygen is pumping faster around your body. The increased flow of oxygen and blood to the brain when we exercise helps the brain to function well.
  • Positive impacts on mental health: exercise stimulates the hippocampus, which is a region of the brain associated with memory, learning and emotions. The hippocampus is larger in people who exercise, compared to those who don’t; a larger hippocampus means increased production of neurotransmitters such as serotonin (known as a “happy hormone”), and an increase in focus. Exercise and mental health are powerfully linked, and people who exercise regularly are found to have lower levels of anxiety and depression. This is because exercise helps our brain produce more of the hormones and neurotransmitters that can fight off anxiety, stress and depression.
  • Improving cognition: Exercise also helps our brain rejuvenate in terms of cognition, so that we can continue to learn new things (known as neuroplasticity) at an optimum level. When we learn new things, our brain creates new neurons (known as neurogenesis), which in turn keeps our brains functioning at a high level.

How does exercise affect mental resilience?

Mental resilience is directly measured by our capacity to cope with stressors, such as those stressors at work, in the family, due to conflict and whatever else mentally burns us out. Two of the ways exercise impacts mental resilience include:

  1. When you exercise, your body produces more serotonin, dopamine (sometimes called the “pleasure hormone”) and norepinephrine (for focus and alertness). These neurotransmitters impact how we feel emotionally. The more we exercise, the more our brain produces, making us feel better and stronger.
  2. During exercise, you are putting your body under stress, but it is controlled stress. There is no sense of threat like there is when we’re in a stressful situation where our body responds by fight, flight or freeze. We have autonomy over our movements with controlled stress, i.e. exercise. When we exercise, we experience this stress over and over and each time, we show our system that we can handle it, control it and recover from it. This sensation is transferrable to other types of stress, and this helps us be more resilient. For example, you’re in an important meeting that you need to present at, and your heart rate increases, and you start to feel a bit sweaty. But this doesn’t feel unfamiliar to your body and brain. They recognise these sensations and know that you will recover soon. So, the anxiety of presenting during the meeting feels less stressful overall; you have become more resilient because your body is used to the stress.

Exercise not only helps with how we feel stress, but also how we respond to stress. You are training the body to be in the presence of stress, but not to be overwhelmed or damaged by it.

Other than resilience to stress, what other types of resilience can we build with exercise and movement?

We also build endurance within the body. If you run, you might find you get out of breath after five minutes. But the more you do it, the longer it takes you to get out of breath. You’re constantly increasing your baseline fitness and endurance. Endurance is basically biological (bodily) resilience and makes us feel stronger and more resilient as people.  

Confidence and competence are also impacted by exercise. The more you plan to exercise and actually follow through, the more competence, confidence and trust you build in yourself. This can help during times of self-doubt or uncertainty because you know that time and time again when you said you’d do something, you did. This is a growth and resilience in mindset.  

What role does the sense of being part of a community or team have to play in building mental resilience?

Naturally, as humans, we tend to do more for others than we do for ourselves. This is because we are social animals, and social connection and inclusion is very important to us. Exercising or playing sport in a group makes us feel included, part of something and that we are important. Social connection makes us feel supported and therefore more resilient to stressors or things that would usually make us anxious, like exercising around others. Taking part in group exercise and events, like the Vhi Women’s Mini Marathon or parkruns, can be an effective way to build a sense of community and connection. 

310405060 WMM Social Statics_6.jpg

Does any kind of exercise help build resilience? Does the duration of exercise matter?

All kinds of exercise will cause your body to pump more blood and oxygen to your brain, resulting in better mental resilience, as we mentioned above. So, no matter what exercise you enjoy and do, it’s going to have a positive impact on your mental resilience. The best exercise is the one that you enjoy and holds value for you; completing it or taking part gives you an emotional benefit. This comes back to the release of serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine that make us feel happy, strong and resilient. 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise per week is the recommended duration. With this, your body and mind will reap the rewards.

Can yoga and meditation have the same impact on our mental resilience?

Another way to describe mental resilience is the ability to maintain a clear mind in the face of a stressful or stormy situation. A clear state of mind is like a muscle; you can exercise it and make it stronger. Meditation and yoga are great ways to strengthen this muscle. Just keep in mind what I said about the importance of enjoying and connecting to the exercise you perform. If yoga or exercise does not connect to you personally, do not try to force it. The interesting thing about meditation is that it can be achieved in ways other than what we classically consider it to be - any focused, repetitive movement that requires your attention is meditation. Think of crocheting or gardening, for instance. Meditation allows you to achieve a clear state of mind, a sense of calm, even in stressful situations. Harnessing this meditative skill in the moments you need it most is mental resilience.

When you choose the movements and exercise that work for your body, you are prioritising yourself. When you do that, you will feel the benefits for your body and your mind in no time. Give yourself time today and enjoy it!

This content is for information purposes only and is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek advice from your GP or an appropriate medical professional if you have concerns about your health, or before commencing a new healthcare regime. If you believe that you are experiencing a medical emergency call 999 / 112 or seek emergency assistance immediately.

Meet our Vhi Verified Expert 

Micheli Romão

Vhi Health Coach

Psychologist and Psychotherapist