A confident athlete standing in the forrest, holding a water bottle, and looking resilient. Learn how to build resilience in this article.

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Your Fitness Routine Helps You Build Resilience—Here’s Why That Matters

Your fitness and mental health routines can make you more resilient, which can help you persevere and adapt during tough times. Here’s how it works.

By Michelle KonstantinovskyMarch 15, 2024


Years ago, Peloton instructor Rebecca Kennedy woke up with an ache in her neck that was so severe, she couldn’t get out of bed—for months. “It was incredibly scary, and the pain was so constant, I feared I wouldn’t be able to do the thing I loved most in life: movement.” 

At first, Rebecca says she was overcome with worry, wondering if the pain would ever go away, whether she’d be able to return to work as a fitness instructor, and why this had happened in the first place. “The more I pondered these thoughts, the worse I felt—and the quicker I realized I needed to change my thinking,” she says. She knew she needed to rely on her training to help her build resilience.

Rebecca began tapping into breathwork and mantras to calm her anxiety. She told herself the pain was temporary and that she would recover, that her body was in the process of teaching her something, and that she could make it through this trying time. “Thinking positively didn’t make the physical pain lessen right away, but emotionally and mentally, I was on a better track,” she says. “I felt supported and optimistic. I took control over my situation, I regulated my emotions, and I persevered through the necessary steps to come out on the other side.”

Rebecca says she credits one thing for her ability to bounce back as strong as she did: her resilience. “I had to reassess and evaluate what I was doing, how I was thinking, and reinvigorate the trust and strength I had acquired in my body,” she says. “My resilience was like a medal I received after running this long, arduous race for several months.” 

So how can resilience help each of us navigate life’s most intense ups and downs, as well as everyday challenges? It turns out, with practice and commitment, we can all strengthen our resilience—and fitness can play a major role in how we do it. Here’s everything you need to know about how to build resilience—and why it benefits you to do so.

What Is Resilience?

Resilience is the ability to adapt to difficult experiences. It’s a term akin to “perseverance,” “grit,” or “mental toughness,” says Michael L. Sachs, PhD, Professor Emeritus in the department of kinesiology at Temple University’s College of Public Health. “It’s responding constructively and positively in the face of challenges and adversity, and continuing your efforts toward your dreams and goals—and not saying ‘no,’” he explains.

Sachs says that resilience is a particularly powerful skill to hone in fitness and beyond, and points to the proverb “fall seven times, stand up eight” as the epitome of a resilient attitude (or, as Peloton instructor Kendall Toole might say, “they can knock you down, but never let them knock you out”). 

“We often meet challenges in our lives, and the question is, ‘how do we address them?’” Sachs says. “Maybe the way we’ve been doing something doesn’t work, and so we find a way around it, over it, or under it, if we can’t go through it.” 

But resilience doesn’t mean pushing through discomfort in an unproductive or unattainable way. “The idea of resilience often gets misused—especially in the sports world—to mean ‘carry on even if you’re in pain,’ ‘ignore your body,’ or ‘bypass what your body needs in service of your goals,’” says Britt Frank, a psychotherapist, licensed specialist clinical social worker, and author of The Science of Stuck. “While sacrifice and hustle certainly have their place for peak performers, true resilience isn’t about ignoring yourself and deferring your pain; it’s about the ability to work through challenges without incurring long-term consequences, whether psychological or physical.”

Rebecca sees resilience as both an external and internal practice. “It’s the ability to get back up when you fall down, to persevere when you’re navigating through challenges, to regulate your own emotions under stress—no matter what,” she says. “It’s a muscle we need to rely on when we least expect it time and time again. Life is a series of ups and downs, and your resilience is what carries you through.”

A male athlete smiling and looking resilient while at the gym. Learn how to build resilience in this article.

© Javier Díez / Stocksy United

Why Is Resilience Important?

We all face hardships in life, both major and minor, and resilience is the ability to keep going, despite the physical, psychological, or emotional distress you’re experiencing. 

“Persevering toward your goals is something that can spill over to the rest of your life, demonstrating that you’re capable of persisting in the face of challenges,” Sachs says. “And that making changes in one area of your life, particularly your fitness and mental health routines, can have an effect in the rest of your life, whether that’s asking for a raise at work or trying to become more successful in other areas.”

While setting fitness goals can help build your overall resilience, Frank says you don’t have to be a sports pro to reap the benefits of exercise-based resilience training. “Resilience isn’t only useful for high-level athletes,” Frank says. “Life is complicated, and developing our resiliency muscles allows us to adjust and adapt to life’s challenges without pushing our feelings down or acting out in unhealthy ways.”

How Fitness and Mental Health Routines Build Resilience

Countless studies indicate that both mental and physical fitness practices can help strengthen resilience, Frank says. “Participating in physical challenges can increase [your] capacity to handle mental and emotional stressors, and working through mental and emotional stressors can help boost your ‘I can do this’ attitude and promote willingness to try new things,” she says.

Here are some specific ways your fitness and mental health routines can help build and bolster resilience:

1. They Help You Bounce Back from Stress

Exercise has a ton of positive effects on the brain, and one of them is resilience to stress. Just about any form of exercise can boost your endorphins and improve your mood while counteracting the damaging effects of stress. Because so much of resilience is about developing a healthy response to stressful situations, exercise can prepare you for maneuvering through tough times. And it’s not just physical practices that can bolster your stress response: Meditation can also have a massive impact.

2. They Help You Face Challenges

“The mental and physical training you do in your workouts are the same things you’ll rely on when it comes to the outside challenges in your life,” Rebecca says. “Fitness is simply where we train for life. They are one and the same. What you train in your workouts is what you rely on in your day-to-day.”

Sachs adds that mental and physical routines—whether that’s your go-to workout plan or a consistent meditation practice—are tangible tools for demonstrating your ability to face obstacles head-on. “You can look back and see that you have persevered,” he says. “You’ve been mentally tough in the face of challenges and continued to work towards your goals. And that can happen across a variety of fitness and mental health routines.”

3. They Help You Learn to Adapt

Adaptation is another major component of resilience, and seeing how your body and mind adapt to consistent physical and mental practices can show you what you’re capable of. Not only does aerobic exercise help your cardiovascular and musculoskeletal systems adapt to healthy amounts of stress (i.e. your workouts), but meditation can actually lead to long-lasting brain changes that can reduce age-related brain degeneration and improve cognitive functions.

More Tips on How to Build Resilience

While there are many ways our fitness and mental health routines help build resilience—and vice versa—here are a few additional expert-backed tips on how to build resilience:

1. Take Stock of What Your Brain and Body Need to Thrive

Before setting a fitness goal, it’s important to assess where you’re at physically and mentally, and then decide which goals will serve you best. “The most important thing to consider before trying an activity, whether it’s meditation or marathon training, is to take an honest assessment of what your body needs and how resourced you are currently in your life,” Frank says. “If you are burned out at work, overwhelmed by the needs of your kids, and socially isolated, that will dictate which activities will be most likely to boost resilience rather than zap you of your energy.”

In practice, that means that while your friend might feel more resilient than ever after a consistent running routine, your body and brain might currently resonate more with, say, Pilates or cycling. “An activity that helps one person can be harmful to another, so take all guidance and apply it to your specific situation,” Frank adds. 

2. Turn Your Inner Monologue Into a Personal Cheerleader 

You know those critical thoughts that pop up when you’re not hitting your target pace or nailing that handstand? Rebecca has one word to describe them: garbage. 

“The negative thoughts in your head are garbage. When we think garbage thoughts, we get garbage results—so take the garbage out!” she says. “When you start hitting that wall of fatigue and the voice that pops in your head is telling you to ‘stop, quit, slow down,’ ‘it doesn’t matter,’ ‘you can’t do it’—acknowledge that is fear talking, and replace it with a mantra that works for you instead of against you. Mine is ‘Rebecca, you can do it.’ Simple and effective.”

3. Know That Resilience Is a Daily Practice

Rebecca says that while we all heavily rely on resilience for especially big moments—like putting in months of race training or hitting a new strength PR—perseverance is a skill that pays off every day. 

“There will be moments daily where you want to find the path of least resistance, where you’d rather take a break and throw in the towel, but the voice in your head telling you to keep going gets louder and overpowers the weaker, fear-based voice telling you to quit,” Rebecca says. So whether you’re feeling gassed during the final push in a workout class or feel frazzled during a stressful situation at work, try to let the resilient voice—the one reminding you that you can do this—take over instead. 

“When unforeseen setbacks come your way, it’s easy to get discouraged and stuck,” Frank says. “Instead of focusing on how far you have to go, focus only on the next step in front of you. If even that seems too daunting (and it usually does), break that step down into tiny, ridiculous-sized pieces.” 

You can think of these important baby steps as “micro-yesses.” “A micro-yes forward is preferable to ruminating about how hard it will feel or how long it will take,” Frank explains “Micro-yesses don’t look like much, but they compound rapidly, they allow you to keep moving and avoid getting stuck, and they are the building blocks of momentum.” 

The Takeaway

Resilience helps us adapt to challenging situations and persevere through difficult times. It’s a skill that anyone can strengthen, and fitness and mental health routines can be especially beneficial tools to help you build resilience. By consistently showing up and reminding yourself of your resilience, you strengthen your ability not only to endure, but to thrive through life’s toughest moments.

This content is for informational and educational purposes only and does not constitute individualized advice. It is not intended to replace professional medical evaluation, diagnosis, or treatment. Seek the advice of your physician for questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition. If you are having a medical emergency, call your physician or 911 immediately.


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