Devlin Brown at the watercooler: Exercise builds resilience and makes you think better
Q: You have written about how good exercise is for the mind, but with work and life stressors, especially in the race to the end of the year, I just can’t keep up. I have no energy or willpower left to exercise. Please give me any tips to overcome this?
Well there we have it. Back-to-back world champions. Four-time champions!
Having missed the first two tournaments, SA have won half of the world cups we have entered. The Springboks are the most successful rugby team. Fact.
Last year the All Blacks embarrassed us at Ellis Park. Two years ago, All Black fullback Jordie Barrett converted a penalty at the death to break our hearts in Townsville. Remember when New Zealand thrashed us 57-0 just six years ago? Do yourself a favour and google the mockery.
Yet this morning the world recognises the toughest team in the world, unmatched in mental and physical resilience. It didn’t happen overnight. When the pressure is applied they show up rather than crumble. This Bok team is special — so special that President Cyril Ramaphosa has lifted the Webb Ellis trophy more times than the entire northern hemisphere combined.
What’s the lesson? The only way to overcome stress is to build mental toughness, which lowers the amount of time it takes to recover from a stressor and start functioning again.
Science is proving that exercise, done regularly, builds stress resilience which has a carry-over to our real lives. And so, maybe, just maybe, we have been approaching this question the wrong way around.
Rather than exercise to destress — but then struggle to find motivation to exercise when we feel bad — we should be exercising to make us more resilient to life in general, which reduces how long we feel bad after a stressful situation, in turn leading to fewer disruptions to our exercise regimen. Sounds a bit wild, but let’s see what some experts say.
Scientists at Emory University split mice into two groups: those who exercised regularly and those who were sedentary. After three weeks the running mice had far higher levels of galanin in their brains, a neuropeptide known to increase with exercise and which is associated with mental health.
The poor creatures were subjected to shocks on their paws to induce stress. The fit rodents shook it off and were getting on with their mousy lives fairly quickly while the unfit, sedentary mice cowered in fear, overwhelmed by stress for prolonged periods. It’s heartbreaking to read. What about humans?
A team at Northern Arizona University conducted a study in 2021 on the effects of exercise on physiological stress resilience in adults, some young adults, some older than 60.
Split into two groups, one ran and climbed stairs at the gym for eight weeks while the other group was sedentary. To test stress resilience, the researchers inflated a blood pressure cuff to cut blood flow to the forearm, considered a stressor mimicking a heart attack. And you thought paw shocks was cruel?
The results? Those that exercised had gained an average 15% in aerobic capacity in just two months. Impressive by any stretch of the imagination. However, they then measured oxidative stress in the blood after the fake heart attacks. The findings showed that the more a person had improved their fitness, the lower the stress response was, irrespective of age.
The Washington Post quotes a professor of neuroscience at the University of Georgia, Phillip Holmes, who researches the neurobiological mechanisms responsible for stress resilience, as well as the neurobiological effects of exercise. According to the article: “The most significant impact that exercise has on brain function is to promote neuroplasticity.”
Holmes was quoted: “That really just means changeability, literally a building of connections in the brain. And one thing that we found that exercise does is it promotes these connections in the prefrontal cortex, which is a critical area for emotion regulation.”
According to Holmes, even mild exercise stimulates a small brainstem nucleus which makes “substances called trophic factors, which promote the building of neural circuits. The stress-resilient parts of the brain get better, healthier circuits while activated.”
Here’s a tip: consider going for a walk, run or gym session to build healthier brain circuits to cope better with life. It adds a bit of gravitas when you add a higher purpose to what you’re doing. Just ask Siya.
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