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Resilient Responders: Health and Fitness

Dr. James D. Guy
Executive Director and Cofounder, Headington Institute, 2014.


The brain is an organ consisting of structures, tissues, and chemicals. It functions best when everything exists in healthy balance. Physical exercise is a powerful way to help the brain structures maintain normal size and functioning. By staying fit, you keep everything working at an optimum level. This gives you the best chance to think clearly, make accurate assessments, and execute good decisions during a crisis. So, maintain your exercise routine to build your personal resilience well before an emergency response.

Although recent research indicates that aerobic exercise is most effective for promoting brain health, any regular exercise is beneficial. Even mild to moderate exercise is significantly more beneficial than none at all. Do whatever works best for you. This is one habit that is well worth the effort.

Even during the most critical emergencies, responders have found that regular exercise restores personal resilience. This is particularly true when the response lasts more than two or three days. Whether this involves vigorous exercise like jogging in place or using a jump rope, or more gentle exercise like walking in place or repeatedly standing and sitting, there are ways to incorporate moments of physical activity almost anywhere, anytime. Knowing that this clears the mind and increases mental focus makes such behavior prudent rather than frivolous. Plan to exercise regardless of the situation, and the immediate benefits will help maintain this habit and promote your ongoing resilience during an emergency response.

After the emergency is over, physical exercise will play an important role in your recovery. Traumatic experiences and chronic stress can alter neurochemicals and neural tissues, changing the size and shape of the amygdala (emotional memory), hippocampus (understanding), and prefrontal cortex (decision-making). This can lead to impaired mental functioning and emotional distress. Through a complex process, over time exercise will help restore the critical brain structures to normal or near-normal functioning.

For many people, increasing personal fitness is a satisfying and empowering way to facilitate their recovery. After a particularly difficult emergency response, recruit family and friends to join you in an accelerated exercise program under the guidance of your personal physician.

Within safe limits, physical fitness will help bring balance to a battered brain before, during, or after a critical incident. Every resilient responder knows this and makes exercise a priority.

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