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Resilience takes work.
In this second blog post I will be talking about the importance of physical exercise in promoting resilience. Anyone who has ever attended a security training or workshop where I have been presenting is well aware of the emphasis I place on this. Should you ever be so unlucky to find yourself signed up for one of these be sure to wear sneakers and comfortable clothes because you will be doing pushups, jumping jacks, sit-ups and the like.
So why the big deal about exercise? There are some obvious answers to this which is why most physicians worldwide recommend it. The cardiovascular benefits alone are compelling enough to start doing more of it. In addition it can help reduce your risk of diabetes and several kinds of cancer, help you combat depression and anxiety, increase bone density, help you sleep better and deeper, and improve your sex life. With a list like this I have to wonder why all of us aren't out exercising a couple of hours a day!
Another obvious benefit of staying physically fit is that it allows you to protect yourself better should you ever find yourself in a field situation gone bad. Especially for those of you who deploy or live in higher risk environments, being able to move fast and quickly is a clear advantage. If you had to run for your life, could you??
But no matter how compelling these reasons are they are not the source of my obsession about getting you to exercise. Rather this has to do with how the brain stress circuits function. Recall from my first post that I am referring here to the amygdala, hippocampus and prefrontal cortex. In broad strokes, the research indicates that over time with exposure to overly stressful situations your amygdala (the alarm bell or freak out center) grows denser or bigger. Your prefrontal cortex and hippocampus get damaged and essentially shrink from the same experiences. Think of the hippocampus as a kind of shock absorber for the amygdala. When the amygdala freaks and sends out the screaming message for flight or fight, the hippocampus tries to provide context appraisal and question whether such a massive response is necessary. So what happens if your hippocampus starts to limp and not function well? Exactly! You'll start reacting to every bump in the road with an all hands on deck alarm - not a good thing. Over time you will most likely find yourself dealing with depression, post traumatic stress, anxiety and other resilience eroding issues.
So what does physical exercise have to do with this? Strangely the research indicates that exercise promotes neurogenesis in the hippocampus. Simply put it helps grow your hippocampus even if you are on the older side of life like myself. We don't know why this is the case although evolutionary psychologists have speculated about it. But we do know it happens. Using my bumpy road analogy, if you have better shock absorbers on your car, you'll be able to negotiate a tougher road without you or your car falling apart. Given that humanitarian aid workers seem to have some attraction to tougher roads, whether that be due to living conditions, organizational hassles, security threats, whatever, it just makes sense to have the best shock absorbers physical exercise can buy!
Hopefully you will get up from reading this post and feel so enlightened and compelled that you will go out and exercise. Just don't expect that your hippocampus is going to be bigger when you get back from your jog. It takes six to eight weeks for neurogenesis to occur. Sorry, no quick fix here. Hence the title of the post: Resilience is a Discipline: it takes work!
Oh, one last thing. If you are in a high risk environment don't go out jogging AND don't think you have an excuse. There are many different exercises you can do without leaving the team house or compound. More on that next time....
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