Physical Exercise Boosts Resilience

(The following commentary has been compiled from, and includes links to our own resources)


Being emotionally and mentally healthy doesn't mean never going through bad times or experiencing emotional problems. We all go through disappointments, loss, and change. And while these are normal parts of life, they can still cause sadness, anxiety, and stress.

The difference is that people with good emotional health have an ability to bounce back from adversity, trauma, and stress. This ability is called resilience. People who are emotionally and mentally healthy have the tools for coping with difficult situations and maintaining a positive outlook. They remain focused, flexible, and creative in bad times as well as good.

All year-round exercise can help you build and maintain your psychological health and resilience. Exercise has been shown to help your body handle stress better (stress resilience), help speed up the mind and protect against dementia. Physically active people also experience lower rates of anxiety and depression than generally inactive people. Some research points to changes in brain chemistry as the reason. Other research focuses on changes in body temperature and cardiorespiratory function during exercise.

Here are some of the wonderful psychological effects that exercise has on the mind:

Increases stress resilience

Studies on mice have shown that exercise reorganises the brain so that it is more resistant to stress.It does this by stopping the neurons firing in the regions of the brain thought to be important in the stress response.

This may be part of the reason why exercise helps...


Exercise has a relatively long-lasting protective effect against anxiety. Both low and medium intensity exercise has been shown to reduce anxiety. However, those doing high intensity exercise are likely to experience the greatest reduction in anxiety, especially among women.


Almost any type of exercise that gets your heart working reduces the risk of dementia. A review of 130 different studies found that exercise helped prevent dementia and mild cognitive impairment among participants. Regular exercise in midlife was associated with lower levels of cognitive problems. Not only this, but participants who exercised had better spatial memory.


If you want to raise your energy levels, reduce tension and boost mood, you can talk to your friends or listen to some music. But most agree that for the difficult job of transforming a bad mood into a good one, exercise is the most effective method.


Just as exercise fights anxiety, it also fights its close relation, depression. One review of 39 different studies involving 2,326 people has found that exercise generally provides moderate relief from depression. It won't cure, but it can certainly help. The effects may be as great as starting therapy or taking anti-depressants.


Working memory includes what's in your conscious mind right now and whatever you're doing with this information. After 30 minutes exercise, people's working memory improves. There's some evidence that accuracy drops a bit, but this is more than made up for by increases in speed.


The effects of exercise on long-term memory are somewhat controversial. However, at low-intensity, one recent study has found that exercise can benefit long-term memory.


A review of 24 different studies on the effects of exercise on self-control, found that a short bout provides an immediate boost to self-control. Although regular exercise didn't show an effect on self-control, a period of moderate exercise did allow people to take better control of themselves.


Schizophrenia is a serious mental disorder often involving hallucinations, paranoia and confused thinking. Despite its grave nature, there's evidence that exercise can help this, as well as alcoholism and body image disorder.


A silent stroke is one that seems to have no outward symptoms, but does actually damage the brain. Without knowing why, sufferers can start experiencing more falls, memory problems and difficulties moving. Exercise, reduces the chance of these silent strokes by 40%. It has to be more than just walking or playing golf, though; things like jogging, biking, playing tennis or swimming are probably required to get the protective effect.


In the most common form of dementia, Alzheimer's, the brain literally wastes away; closely followed by the body. Neurons and synapses are lost and the sufferer's memory, personality and whole being slowly but surely disappear. Exercise, though, provides a protective effect against Alzheimer's by helping to produce chemicals which fight the damaging inflammation of the brain.

improves children's school performance

Children who are fitter and engage in more exercise do better at school. Incredibly, one study has found that the increased mental abilities of children who exercise makes them safer crossing the road when distracted by their mobile phones.

stimulates brain cell growth

Part of the reason that exercise is beneficial in so many different mental areas is that it helps new brain cells to grow. A study on rats has shown that, in response to exercise, the brain regions related to memory and learning grow.

increases executive functioning

What psychologists call 'executive functioning' includes all kinds of useful abilities like being able to switch tasks efficiently, ignore distractions, make plans, and so on. Studies in this area, found that exercise reliably improves executive function, especially in older adults.

helps better sleep

The relationship between exercise and sleep is a little more complicated than most imagine. It's not necessarily the case that exercise makes you tired, so you sleep better. For example, one study on insomniacs found that 45 minutes on a treadmill did not make them sleep better that night. However, the study found that exercise did help sleep in the long-term. Participants with insomnia who kept to their exercise programs over 16 weeks did get better sleep than those who did no exercise.

prevents migraines

Migraine sufferers are often afraid of exercise because it might bring on an attack. But a study has shown that exercise can actually help prevent migraines. Participants who took part in three sessions a week on an exercise bike for three months showed improvements equivalent to taking the latest anti-migraine drugs.

helps to stop smoking

Even something as simple as a short walk can help people give up smoking. According to 12 different studies people who take a brisk walk, or similar exercise, experience less stress, less anxiety and fewer withdrawal symptoms when trying to give up. The reason it helps is partly because it actually makes the cigarettes seem less attractive.

reduces motivation to eat

People tend to think that exercising makes you eat more to replace the lost calories, but new research questions this. Recent studies have found that, after exercise, people show lower motivation to eat food. Exercise may suppress appetite by decreasing the body's levels of ghrelin, which is a hormone that stimulates appetite.

it's more fun than we predict

The final effect exercise has on the mind is not so wonderful. It's the effect that we tend to predict it's going to be horrible. But this is short-sighted. Research has shown that while exercising can be a drag at the start of the session, people soon warm up and enjoy their workouts much more than they predict. This was true across lots of different types of people and for both moderate and challenging workouts.

Exercise is not just about aerobic capacity and muscle size. Certainly,exercise can improve your health and your physique, trim your waistline, improve your sex life, and even add years to your life. But that's not what motivates most people to stay active. People who exercise regularly tend to do so because it gives them an enormous sense of well–being. They feel more energetic throughout the day, sleep better at night, have sharper memories, and feel more relaxed and positive about themselves and their lives. And it doesn't take hours of pumping weights in a gym or running mile after mile to achieve those results.

By focusing on activities you enjoy and tailoring a regular mild to moderate exercise routine to your needs, you can experience the health benefits of exercise and improve your own life by:

Easing stress and anxiety.

A twenty-minute bike ride won't sweep away all of life's troubles, but exercising regularly helps you take charge of anxiety and reduce stress. Aerobic exercise releases hormones that relieve stress and promote a sense of well-being.

Lifting your mood.

Exercise can treat mild to moderate depression as effectively as antidepressant medication. Exercise also releases endorphins, powerful chemicals in your brain that energize your spirits and make you feel good.

Sharpening brainpower.

The same endorphins that make you feel better also help you concentrate and feel mentally sharp for tasks at hand. Exercise also stimulates the growth of new brain cells and helps prevent age-related decline.

Improving self-esteem.

Regular activity is an investment in your mind, body, and soul. When it becomes habit, it can foster your sense of self-worth and make you feel strong and powerful. Boosting energy. Increasing your heart rate several times a week will give you more get-up-and-go. Start off with just a few minutes of exercise a day, and increase your workout as you feel more energized.

Physical activity also helps your body and overall health in many other ways, such as:

  • controlling your weight

  • reducing your risk of heart disease

  • reducing your risk for type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome

  • reducing your risk of some cancers

  • strengthening your bones, muscles and joints

  • increasing your chances of living longer

You should have a well-rounded approach to your fitness routine. Well-rounded training should address the health and performance-related components of physical fitness. Please click here for our "Staying physically active" resource. If you have any queries about the content, please do not hesitate to contact us.

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© 2012 7Futures Ltd. Please note that, at 7Futures, our role is to help educate and encourage our clients to take positive responsibility for their wellbeing. We are not medical doctors and are not able to offer individual medical advice. We always recommend you should discuss with your GP or other medical professional before making any changes you hope will impact your wellbeing, or that of your current/future family.  7Futures Ltd offers generic information which is for educational purposes only. The information we provided is not a prescription system and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. As such our materials, videos products and communications are for general information purposes only and should not be read as a personal recommendation for specific changes in lifestyle behaviour, nutrition, or exercise. Please click here for a clear description of our services and the relationship with you as a client. You should not participate in any of our services until you have studied this is for your benefit.

Mark Davies