How Exercise Will Help You Build Mental Resilience

In today's hyper-fast-paced world— riddled with relentless deadlines, professional demands, and constant bombardment of information, it's inevitable to encounter stress daily and experience periods of overwhelm. This constant pressure affects our emotional well-being and can derail our progress, be it in creative pursuits or even our commitments to manage our health and fitness.

This raises the question: how do the most successful people thrive in high-pressure environments and have the mental resilience to conquer their day? While many factors can contribute to mental health, one element stands out: exercise.

Think about it: most highly effective individuals have established exercise routines. Research has shown that healthy and fit individuals are more stress-resilient and have better self-efficacy– the belief in oneself. These characteristics are typically seen in people who thrive in their field.

This article will discuss how you can use exercise to build mental resilience and develop key abilities to handle tough times.

In psychology, mental resilience is defined as the ability to adapt and recover from setbacks, stress, and adversity without resulting in self-sabotaging behaviors, such as procrastination, self-doubt, or social isolation. Instead, mental resilience equips you with the strength to push through a stressful situation.

Research in neuroscience suggests resilient people have better connectivity in brain areas associated with emotions. This doesn't mean that resilient individuals are less responsive to stress. Instead, their brain is more involved in adapting to overwhelming situations.

Adapting to stressful situations and bouncing back from setbacks is a dynamic interplay of thought patterns, learned behaviors, and emotional responses, suggesting that building mental resilience over time is possible for everyone.

Mental resilience can be trained, just like your muscles.

You cannot develop mental resilience overnight. Just like any other skill, it requires consistent effort and practice to engrave it into your being and have the ability to activate it when a crucial moment comes your way.

But this doesn't mean that you have to expose yourself to crazy, dangerous situations or experience failure over and over to try to overcome stress and depression. The good thing is you can train mental resilience in a controlled setting like the gym.

Exercise is one of the most cost-effective pills to keep your physical and mental health in check. In medicine, exercise is part of medical prescription when treating mental conditions such as anxiety and depression. Essentially, exercise is medicine itself.

Exercise is medicine.

When you hit the gym regularly, you help your body get better at handling stress. Exercise is a form of stress itself—your heart beats faster, your breathing speeds up, and your body releases a stress hormone called cortisol.

But here's the good news: if you make exercise a habit, your body learns to manage these stress signals more efficiently. So, the next time you face a stressful situation, your body will be better prepared. It won't release as much cortisol, and you'll find it easier to stay calm because your body is already used to that stress level from your workouts.

Becoming mentally resilient is all about exposing yourself to difficult situations and surpassing your limits. When you think you've reached your limit in the gym, adding an extra rep represents your willingness to push beyond your immediate barrier.

In strength training, most people underestimate their capacity and underperform their sets. Adding 1 more rep to your psychological exercise limit can help you break this mental barrier and translate it to other aspects of your life.

Adding 1 more rep can raise your psychological limit to stress.

Many lifters fixate on a routine for weeks and even months, overlooking the crucial principle of progressive overload. This rigid adherence to routine can gradually put us in a comfort zone and eventually stagnate our fitness progress.

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Constantly thinking about improving your fitness journey and trying to challenge your workout further pushes your muscles to adapt and grow. More importantly, it challenges your perception of your limitations.

Applying progressive overload consistently can help you build mental toughness.

There are many kinds of exercise and a lot of exercise equipment and machines designed to help you reach your physical potential. So, why limit yourself to a rigid exercise routine? Why not switch things up sometimes and try new things? Why not try to learn to jump rope? Or a session of the Stairmaster for a change? Or attend a group exercise class?

Though unfamiliar experiences can be stressful and challenging, stepping out of your comfortable routine and changing things up can help you get used to new experiences, allowing you to have a better stress response to different situations.

Trying new exercises or equipment is a step outside your comfort zone too!

If you want to simulate a high-pressure situation, try high-intensity interval training (HIIT). This type of exercise puts your body in a lot of stress in a short amount of time. It helps you burn tons of calories, achieve your target heart rate fast, and, more importantly, it pushes your mental limitations.

How does it work? HIIT makes your heart and breathing rate reach peak levels in seconds. Essentially, it trains your mind and body to rapidly switch gears, allowing you to adapt to different levels of stress and intensity quickly.

High-intensity training can train you to adapt to stress quickly.

Here’s a plan for women that will help you build a strong body and mind:

And for men:

While long-distance running allows you to enjoy solitary physical activity, some long-distance runners consider the sport as a meditative practice that allows you to be alone with your thoughts.

When fatigue sets in, completing a long-distance run session takes inner resolve. This effectively trains the mind to stay calm and focused on stressful situations. This exercise trains your mind to focus while your body tells you to stop.

Long-distance running trains the mind to stay focused on your goals.

Participating in team sports combines social interaction and physical activity, creating a crucial sense of community and accountability that can strengthen your mental resolve. Furthermore, team sports are competitive, meaning you either win or lose. This experience will teach you how to cope with failure and setbacks and further train your ability to handle stress in a social setting.

Joining team sports can help you be accountable and take responsibility more confidently.

Pilates and yoga are less intense options that are good for you. Aside from helping you stay flexible and strong, they also teach you how to be mindful and aware of your own body, which can help you manage stress and have better control of your breathing patterns.

Your breathing pattern and stress response are directly connected. When you're stressed, your heart beats faster, you breathe quickly, and your thoughts can get jumbled. What you can control the most at that moment is how you breathe. Slow, deep breaths can help slow down your heart rate, making you feel calmer and think more clearly in no time.

If you can control your breathing, you can control your thoughts.

Studies suggest that staying indoors all the time can make you feel anxious and depressed due to the lack of mental and emotional stimulation.

Outdoor exercises like biking, walking in nature, or hiking can give your body much-needed physical activity and vitamin D from the sun. More importantly, spending time outside can spark new ideas and help you think more clearly.

It’s more fun in the sun.

Mental resilience is a skill needed to thrive in today's modern world, and one of the most cost-effective ways to build it is to have an exercise routine and consistently challenge your physical limitations, which can translate to other areas of your life.

In a way, the gym can be your training ground for building the necessary mental skills to succeed in other endeavors. Consistently showing up to exercise trains discipline, patience, and endurance— qualities that can be directly applied to overcome challenges in your work, relationships, and creative projects.

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Bert Bauzon is a licensed physiotherapist specializing in spinal care and sports rehabilitation. He writes articles and books about exercise science and health care.

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