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Resiliency Habit #2: Physical Fitness

Posted Oct 26th, 2018

9 Habits of Resilience for Highly Effective Leaders:

  1. Building Commitment to Ourselves
  2. Physical Fitness
  3. Brain Fitness: Stilling the mind, developing patience
  4. Brain Fitness: Focusing the mind
  5. Knowing Our Purpose
  6. Integrative thinking
  7. Daily Reflection
  8. Personal Operating Principles
  9. Building and Maintaining Networks | Coming Soon!

Habit #2: Physical Fitness

“When we have been prevented from learning how to say no, our bodies may end up saying it for us.” - Dr. Gabor Mate

Most of us deny the effects that lack of exercise, poor eating habits, sleep deprivation and the lack of relaxation periods each day have on our bodies let alone our minds. We go-go-go until we are exhausted and then we consume stimulants to pick up our energy levels. If you knew the state of your adrenal glands, kidneys, or pancreas you might take another look at your habits. If you realized how you could dramatically increase your mental focus and decision making capability by taking better care of your body, you might change those habits.

Psychoneuroimmunology research has shown us that constant doing in an environment of stress disturbs the natural interface between the central nervous, autonomic nervous, endocrine and immune systems and the mind. Here’s how it works. Our bodies are hardwired to respond to a real or perceived threat to our survival with a fight or flight response. In these times, apart from natural disasters and acts of terrorism, the 3 leading threats or stressors in our daily lives are uncertainty, lack of information, and loss of control. Perhaps your company has been acquired a year ago and now they are instituting a far-reaching reorganization. You are not sure of where you will eventually land. You were not part of the strategy- setting so do not know all the impacts of cascading change on those you have worked closely with in the past. And since the senior team in your division is in flux, you feel out of control. What can you do to manage this acute stress in your mind- body and remain resilient in your day-to-day operations?

Or consider another scenario. Your boss brought you into this company and you worked extremely well together to create a happy and high performing division. She accepts an outside promotion and the boss-from-hell replaces her. You had intended to dedicate 5 years to this job as it provides great opportunity for growth in both technical expertise and leadership. It has been 2 years since your new boss arrived and in spite of employing many strategies to manage up successfully and not get discouraged, you are feeling exhausted and irritable all the time. Now you are having trouble sleeping and experiencing something that might be heartburn. These symptoms may be only the tip of the iceberg of chronic stress, which occurs when we are exposed to stressors that cannot be escaped either because we don’t recognize them or because we have no control over them.

Whether stress is acute or chronic, we all carry it and for the most part try to ignore it. In the face of the perceived threat, a message goes to the brain and the adrenal glands kick in, raising the heart rate, directing blood flow away from the internal organs and to the muscles ( believing we need to fight or run) and releasing blood sugar into the bloodstream to generate energy with which to mobilize our muscles. Remember the petite woman who lifted an automobile to free her trapped child? That was adrenaline not upper body strength. Under threat, the neo-cortex registers an experience.

The Hypothalmus involves the endocrine (hormonal) system by alerting the pituitary gland. The adrenals are called to action and if the threat is sustained, the adrenal glands release cortisol and DHEA all day and night to help the body function. This puts our immune system under pressure and will cause harm. Chronically high cortisol levels destroy tissue. Chronically elevated adrenalin levels raise the blood pressure and damage the heart. And if you are living a hurried lifestyle, working around the clock, travelling through time zones, you will reach a state where because you are not creating rest and rejuvenation activities which calm the nervous system by engaging the parasympathetic nervous system ( yes, you do have one and this would be a good time to make its acquaintance) you will reach a state of chronic stress and exhaustion. You won’t be able to quiet your racing mind at the end of the day and sleep is disturbed. Hypervigilant adrenals use up your calming neurotransmitters. Brain circuits are interrupted and you get edgy and fuzzy minded. You will not be responsive and resilient to the many unanticipated demands of your day.

Most achievement-oriented people (my kind term for driven over-achievers of which I am one) have at one time or another stopped to think about what might happen if they keep driving themselves at the same rate indefinitely. Could this be you? You love raising the bar and exceeding expectations. You are motivated by self-imposed goals. You work long hours, stay up late at night, and may even manage to fit in long runs or rides. You rely on caffeine, sugar and other stimulants for energy. Every day is an adventure; life is a blur of activity. You look and feel great! Except for the darkening circles under your eyes and the reflux condition.

But wait a minute, have you considered what might happen if you keep driving yourself like this while your body struggles to keep up?You are not just a mind being supported by a miracle. You have a body which also requires attention in order to keep you functioning at high levels of performance. Sometimes we ignore our bodies and their needs altogether. Sometimes we push them as hard as we push our minds and our deliverables. To create optimal performance and a high degree of resilience, you must take care of your body. You know what to do. You just don’t do it because it goes at the end of your day’s priority list. Time to change that around.

4 practices done in moderation will balance your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, reduce the stress on your adrenals and allow your body to move fluidly between action and rest/repair. This combination supports resilience and allows us to bring focus and concentration to any task or relationship, to problem solve and make decisions in a timely and effective way, and to adapt to the ever-changing environment. I call them resilience rituals and they include moderate physical exercise, good nutrition, relaxation, and rest.


Exercise signals the brain to release endorphins, internal opiates which reduce the sensation of pain and heighten pleasurable emotions. Dopamine, a feel-good neurotransmitter is stimulated. Some people like to over-exercise to get a sustained high and do not realize that by so doing they are creating a continuous flow of adrenaline which is tearing the body down faster than it can repair itself. At the other extreme, after only 3 days in bed we start to lose muscle mass which means we burn less energy and store more fat. If instead, you eat protein and exercise regularly and moderately ( strength training and cardio) your body will transform fat from your fat cells into sugar to burn as fuel, and your brain will not have to call on the adrenals to release cortisol to regulate your blood sugar. You will lose body fat and feel more energetic, experience elevated moods, and increase your flexibility, agility and endurance. These physical qualities are mirrored by the mind and make us resilient thinkers.

Good nutrition

We all know what it looks like. Essentially, if we can wean ourselves off sugar, white flour and caffeine, our energy is balanced and our digestive system is clean. Sugar and refined carbohydrate intake leads to the the well documented adrenaline/cortisol/insulin vicious cycle which spikes and dives all day and will ultimately deplete your adrenal reserve. When we need 2 venti lattes to start our day and a sugar snack mid morning, we’re hooked in this cycle of craving. We get a brief energy high and then we crash again. And on it goes. Eating or drinking sugar at night ( yes, alcohol counts as pure sugar) is particularly harmful to this cycle. To cut down on sugar and caffeine, first initiate a habit of eating protein at every meal and snack which will increase your serotonin (feel good ) levels. Eat whole foods often in small amounts. See any one of the many diet books you have on your shelf or Kindle. Drink 8 glasses of water without fluoride per day , and organic green tea. Fast for 12 hours every day between dinner and breakfast.


Relaxation is the 3rd resilience ritual. We believe falsely that if we get up in the morning and drive ourselves hard all day, we will be optimally productive. Wrong. Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz have debunked this myth in “The Making of a Corporate Athlete.” It turns out that our biochemistry is such that just as we are hard wired with a circadian rhythm which alternates between REM and deep delta wave sleep at night, we are also governed by an ultradian rhythm during the day, which cycles us from a high energy state every 90-120 minutes into a physiological trough for 10-20 minutes ( when we feel dull and sluggish).

If we do not pause and rejuvenate at the end of that time, but continue to work in the same fashion all day, we deplete our sympathetic nervous system. Instead, if we take a break and engage in an activity which is oppositional to what we have been doing, the nervous system is rested and revitalized, increasing our mental focus and resilience. If your work is mostly mental-emotion, do something physical or relational on your break. Athletes and their coaches have perfected the use of interval training to mirror this natural rhythm. Hockey players come off the ice no matter how well they are performing. Jack Nicklaus used the time between shots to rest his mental focus by chatting with his partner or consciously breathing in the fresh and fragrant air.

Because we are conditioned to be work horses not pace horses, our tendency when we encounter these low energy periods is to artificially pump up our energy with stimulants. This may get us through one afternoon, but it contributes to energy depletion, a decrease in mental focus, creativity, patience and optimism. If instead we see ourselves as corporate athletes, we institute interval resilience rituals such as: run up and down the stairs in your office building, lift a few weights, do one or two yoga postures, do 5 minutes of deep breathing practice, listen to one tune on your iPod, eat an energy bar, call your spouse, connect with somebody, take a power nap, walk through the food court, laugh out loud.


Paying off your sleep debt is the final practice. No matter what you may tell yourself, you need at least 6 hours of sleep per night in a dark room ( so melatonin can do its thing). This is when the body rests and slips into the biochemistry of repair. It needs to rebuild the reserves in preparation for all the demands tomorrow will bring. It is also when the mind integrates information and experiences of the day and consolidates new knowledge into long-term memory. REM sleep occurs every 90 minutes and it is the time when the mind repairs itself, grows new connections, and puts it all together. The duration of each REM cycle increases as the night progresses and extends for a full hour between the 7th and 8th hour of sleep.

When we don’t sleep deeply or long enough, our brain carries a backlog of information and does not complete its creative processing. This interferes with our mental acuity the next day. And then of course, sleep can also be disturbed by time zone change, the time at which we have our last meal, our drugs of choice, racing mind, whacky hormones, watching TV in the bedroom ( any light especially flashing light prevents the production of melatonin by the pineal gland which induces sleep), young children, snoring dogs etc. Our ancestors never experienced these issues because they went to sleep in dark rooms once the sun went down and awoke at sunrise. Their mind-bodies got the repair they needed to function well the next day.

To return to your beneficial circadian rhythm, make your bedroom your sanctuary. Use it only for sleeping and lovemaking. Start quieting the mind 30 minutes before bedtime with relaxing music, white noise, pleasure reading, deep breathing, meditation, a bath with epsom salts, magnesium supplements.


“Tired of Being Tired” Jesse Lynn Hanley MD & Nancy Deville
“When the Body Says No” Gabor Mate MD
e-newsletters of Dr. Christianne Northrup and Dr Andrew Weill

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