Can we develop psychological resilience through physical activity?

Psychological ‘resilience’ refers to the differences between people in how they respond to and cope with difficult or stressful experiences. People who are highly resilient would be less affected, recover more quickly, and/or might actually find such events to be growth experiences. For people low in resilience, the opposite would be true.

Now here’s something to think about: many popular books and articles have mentioned the increases in mental disorder such as stress and depression over the last century, at least in the modern world. And if you think about it, there does seem to be a trend in which, as time has gone by, we’ve increased our use of technology to the effect that we physically move around much less.

Could it be that there is a causal relationship here, that our lack of movement has reduced our psychological resilience to stress? And by becoming more active, could we increase our resilience?

Stress

In a sense, everything that we do involves stress. Even just reading this sentence is placing a particular demand on your brain, so what is important here is how we respond a particular stressor. Stress is also important for growth – our bodies are adaptive and generally respond to stress by becoming more able to deal with it; provided that stress is not too high. For example, doing bicep curls with 100kg would probably be too much stress and lead to injury, but 10kg might be enough stress to increase strength.

So you could argue that placing the body under moderate amounts of stress could, over time, lead to lowered stress responses to future events, but the important point is whether resilience to the stress of exercise carries over to stress caused by other events (eg, in the workplace, traffic jams, etc).

Exercise

resilience_and_exercise
Two great ways to get some exercise: Walk the invisible dog, and handshake the invisible man. (Credit: mikebaird)

In one study, researchers put one group of participants on a 10-week walking and jogging program, and left another to continue their normal sedentary lifestyle. At the end of the program, the exercise group scored lower on state and trait anxiety, as well as less tension and fatigue. These factors could contribute to lowered stress responses to future events, however this was not tested directly, and additionally only 16 participants per group took part, and you’d typically want a minimum of 30, preferably more, to get a solid finding. (1)

In another study, the effects of aerobic, weight, and no training on responses to a fiendishly stressful situation were compared. Participants had to answer mental arithmetic puzzles, which flashed up on a screen too fast to complete, while listening to distracting conversations involving numbers.

Those who had undergone the aerobic training had reduced heart-rate and systolic blood-pressure responses relative to the control group (the weight training group only had improvements in systolic blood-pressure). So it seems apparent that exercise builds physical and psychological resilience to other events. (2)

Mechanisms

The mechanism of this effect is not yet fully understood, but Spalding et al (2) suggest it may by primarily due to improvements in general cardiac performance – the cardiovascular system becomes more efficient and doesn’t need to do as much work to mobilise resources in reaction to a stressor. In this way, exercise effectively raises the body’s natural ‘trigger point’ for the stress response.

Additionally, exercise triggers the release of atrial natriuretic peptide (ANP), which has a direct effect on the body’s stress response by reducing the activation of the HPA axis. This is a route through which exercise can reduce immediate levels of stress, but there may be longer-term effects too; exercise may benefit chronic levels of stress by relaxing the resting tension level of the muscles, which can reduce chronic stress by breaking the stress-feedback loop (3).

The body was ‘designed’ with the presumption that it would experience a certain amount of movement, and when this movement doesn’t take place, the body doesn’t perform up to spec. This is one example of many where we see that as humans are taken further from their ‘natural environment’, so to speak, various problems start to arise.

Recommended Reading:

References:

(1) Blumenthal, J.A., Williams., R.S., Needels, T.L., & Wallace, A.G. (1982). Psychological changes accompany aerobic exercise in healthy middle-aged adults. Psychosomatic Medicine, 44(6), 529-536.

(2) Spalding, T.W., Lyon, L.A., Steel, D.H., & Hatfield, B.D. (2004). Aerobic exercise training and cardiovascular reactivity to psychological stress in sedentary young normotensive men and women. Psychophysiology, 41, 552-562.

(3) Ratey, J., & Hagerman, E. (2008). Spark. London: Quercus.

11 thoughts on “Can we develop psychological resilience through physical activity?

  1. As a dog trainer specializing in “behavior problems”, exercise is a standard recommendation, whether the dog is terrified or a maniac.

    I should really start keeping records, but it does seem as if extended exercise (something more akin to aerobic exercise?) has more of an effect than shorter, more intense activities (more akin to weight training?).

    Any thoughts on why aerobic would be more beneficial than weight-training alone to HR during performance under stress? Is the effect noted an additional effect, other than the obvious cardiovascular benefit aerobic training provides?

    1. That’s really interesting I didn’t know similar things were done with animals! Yes it does seem that aerobic is more beneficial. I don’t know about the actual mechanisms except for the suggestion in the article, but I’d suggest that it works because it’s closer to the normal pattern of activity that our body ‘expects’; ie., as wandering tribes our ancestors would have walked for many miles each day, or spent a long time on our feet tracking and following prey. So it’s not really that we’re getting a benefit, but more that we’re getting to ‘normal’ functioning.

  2. We simply must do what nature drives us to do. The other day I nearly ate a nasty old piece of broccoli my house mates left in a pot, I hate broccoli but my body was craving it. The next day I became ill. I had been neglecting my vegetables and exercise. We should recognise these signs in order to stay on top of our health, both physical and mental.
    .-= Stuart @ Power Essence´s last blog ..Persuasive Techniques =-.

  3. I see the impact on healthy people – how about the impact of exercise on physical activity on recovery? I would imagine that the value of exercise is hugely important for people recovering from brain trauma and other similar injuries. Great thought that we were “designed” to experience a certain amount of movement – so important!Thanks for the article, we are the brain injury attorney los angeles specialists.

  4. The mind and body are distinct, but not separate. So, this article makes great sense.

    One point I would quibble with: From my perspective resilience is not a lowered stress response, but an increased capacity to recover from the stress response. This is an important distinction.

    1. I think what you refer to there is usually called ‘bounceback’, but both are probably important parts of resilience;

  5. I’ve also been experiencing stress. To reduce the stress, I usually go on vacation to a place of fun on the weekend. I have never known if exercise can reduce stress, maybe I will try it…

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