5 Ways to Promote Resilience Through Exercise

5 Ways to Promote Resilience Through Exercise

Read Time • 10 Min
  • Category Mental Health


We all experience stress; it is an inevitable component of life. However, have you ever noticed how some people seem to take that stress and channel it for all sorts of phenomenal things?  These people sometimes seem other-than-human and many people often look up to them as an example of what to strive toward. This article is all about this innate drive that all humans possess the capability for (called resilience), but tap into at varying levels. Exercise is one medium through which we can enhance our levels of resilience, so stay tuned for some tips for how to increase your own resilience!

The power of failure

Resilience is the innate drive that all humans possess to strive for self-actualization and improvement in all that we do. Therefore, we all possess the capacity to be able to bounce back from challenges and adversity that exists in the world. A resilient response is one in which an individual continues to function in adaptive ways despite the presence of things that only seem to want to knock us back a few pegs. Though all of us have the capacity to act with resilience, actual responses to adversity and stressors exist on a spectrum from low to high levels of resilience (Richardson, 2002). 

Resilience is said to develop through the process of disruption and reintegration. A life disruption is any event that causes stress and can be minor (i.e., difficult conversations with a partner or boss) or significant (i.e., a significant trauma). When this disruption occurs, we then want to seek out homeostasis, or a feeling of balance in our life. In order to reach this homeostasis, we go through a process of reintegration, which involves a conscious or unconscious choice of how we will respond to that life disruption. When we make resilient choices in that reintegration process, we tend to experience growth, knowledge, and/or self-awareness or understanding (Richardson, 2002). 

In order for resilience to occur, we must experience disruptions in our lives. Though they are considered undesirable and most people go to great lengths to avoid them, in the right perspective, disruptions can be framed as important for growth. Without challenges in life, we don’t develop the capacity to be able to respond to the world resiliently. People who show resilient qualities tend to view failure as something that helps us grow as people and have a tendency to accept that disruption is avoidable. Other qualities common to resilient people include: 

  • High self-efficacy
  • Internal locus of control: the belief that one is in control of life outcomes
  • Strong critical thinking skills 
  • Humor
  • Self-discipline

These life challenges or disruptions cause all sorts of cognitive, emotional, and psychological reactions that we may not have control of in the moment. However, in order to choose a resilient path forward, we must have self-awareness of what these reactions are. Therefore, a critical component of resilience is self-awareness (Richardson, 2002). 

How exercise promotes resilience

On a neurological level, exercise promotes neuroplasticity, or the brain’s ability to change and adapt to our environment. In particular, exercise enhances a chemical called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which is known to promote literal growth of cells and blood vessels within the brain, enhancing functioning. As you can imagine, neuroplasticity is a foundational component of acting resiliently to the disruptions we experience in life (Sampedro-Piquero & Moreno-Fernández, 2021). Our thoughts and behaviors are both directly and indirectly influenced by our physiological states.

Additionally, exercise tends to strengthen the neural circuits and brain regions involved in top-down mental processes, which include self-regulation, planning, problem-solving, and cognitive flexibility (Belcher et al., 2020). In other words, exercise enhances our ability to take a difficult situation, think through the various ways we can respond, and make the best decision based on our needs and values. 

One study examined the psychological and physiological responses to acute stressors amongst individuals who do and do not regularly exercise. They measured heart rate, blood pressure, cortisol, and self-reported stress levels and mood before and after an interpersonal stress test. They found that both groups experienced similar physiological indicators of stress (blood pressure and cortisol), but that those who regularly exercise reported more positive moods and less stress after the stressful task. This indicates that regular exercise has a protective impact on the subjective or emotional experience of stress (Childs & deWitt, 2014). 

Tips for increasing resilience through exercise

While exercise is beneficial for enhancing our levels of resilience, there are ways that we can intentionally enhance the many resilience-related benefits that movement affords us. Generally, I see exercise and physical activity as an analog to life. Because exercise itself is a stressor, albeit a good one, we generate mental strategies to help us continue to grow as people. Taking those strategies and applying them to our daily life will help us to reap the most benefits. 

So, here are some tips for using exercise to enhance your personal levels of resilience. Use them for exercise and also as an extension for what you can do in other arenas of your life to enhance your resilience.

1. Set process-oriented goals. 

Goals are designed to help move us forward. However, the type of goal you set matters; some goals can keep us going, whereas other goals have the tendency to overwhelm and shut us down. Process-oriented goals are those where we focus on the behaviors we want to engage in that promote our wellbeing in the long run (i.e., walking every day). On the other hand, outcome-oriented goals are those that focus on what we want to achieve (i.e., lose 10 pounds). 

While it is certainly okay to have outcomes in mind, outcomes typically have many factors that influence them and we often encounter barriers that are beyond our control that limit our ability to reach the endpoint. Therefore, even if you have an incredibly busy week, you can still fit in a quick 10 minute walk and live up to that process-oriented goal.

2. Plan out challenges and resilience strategies. 

As we are crushing our process-oriented goals, we can also plan certain challenges that help to push us and require us to enact resiliency strategies that will only serve us in the long run. There is no rule that says our challenges that promote resilience only have to be unexpected things. Therefore, find things you can do that you know will be a challenge for you — schedule a 5k race, try out your first 1,000 calorie workout, or perform a series of lifts (safely) at your one rep maximum weight. As you are planning out what you are going to do to challenge yourself, also think of strategies to help you through that challenge. For example, when I do longer runs that I know will be challenging, I like to choose a mantra ahead of time that I will say aloud or in my mind during the run. I love saying “one short day” which is a quote from a song in one of my favorite musicals. This helps me to push through even when I want to give up. Be creative and create as many strategies as you want, these will copy over into other areas of life!

3. Challenge your inner dialogue

When we experience challenges, we often have automatic mental reactions. For example, when your trainer calls out that you will be doing 30 seconds of burpees, maybe you think “oh no!” While you can’t necessarily control these thoughts, you can choose how you will respond to them. Find ways to challenge this inner dialogue that, when unchallenged, can hold you back. For example, after you think “oh no!” you might tell yourself “this is going to be hard, but I know I can do it.” This gentle challenge can help you to keep going when you are wanting to give up after your 6th burpee. Learn more about impacting negative self-talk here.

4. Push through both good and bad days. 

It is fairly easy to push through when we are having one of those high-energy, high-motivation days where the workout just feels easy. However, some days a workout seems like the last thing we would ever want to do, or a workout that used to feel easy seems like the hardest thing we have ever done. Being resilient can mean listening to those cues and taking a break or could mean that you push through and work out anyway. Safely pushing through helps you develop the self-discipline and mental coping strategies that are applicable throughout many arenas of life (not just your workout).

5. Find role models of resilience. 

Find people in your life who are resilient and use them as a source of personal inspiration. The key here is that you don’t compare yourself to them or you run the risk of overwhelming yourself with that pesky social comparison. When we have the right mindset in which we identify the admirable qualities in the person and incorporate those into our own value system, this can serve as inspiration rather than comparison. 

I hope that some of these tips can help you feel empowered to make the decisions that further your own wellbeing. What are some other ways that exercise helps promote your own levels of resilience?


Belcher, B. R., Zink, J., Azad, A., Campbell, C. E., Chakravartti, S. P., & Herting, M. M. (2020). The roles of physical activity, exercise, and fitness in promoting resilience during adolescence: Effects on mental well-being and brain development. Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Nueroscience and Neuroimaging, 6(2), 225-237. 

Childs, E., & de Wit, H. (2014). Regular exercise is associated with emotional resilience to acute stress in healthy adults. Frontiers in Physiology, 5, 1-7.

Richardson, G. E. (2002). The metatheory of resilience and resiliency. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 58(3), 307-321. 

Sampedro-Piquero, P., & Moreno-Fernández, R. D. (2021). Building resilience with aerobic exercise: Role of FKBP5. Current Neuropharmacology: Perspectives in Neuropharmacology and Neuroscience, 19(8), 1156-1160.