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Feeling Stressed? Step #3: Focus on Fitness

When we recover from physical exertion, acetylcholine, (para-sympathetic nervous system chemical) is released. The para-sympathetic nervous system enables us to recover quickly from emotional and mental pressure. It is important to exercise regularly, especially getting our heart rate up and down at least 3 times a day. If not, that system will be too sluggish for us to rebalance when we encounter stress. If we are hit with multiple stressors in a day or a week, they will build up and we will likely feel overloaded – in a situation where “everything is going wrong” – the opposite of grace under pressure.

Here are specific fitness tips designed to enhance each of the four elements of Physical Intelligence:


When we exercise our bodies to build muscular and functional strength, we promote the release of steroids – testosterone, DHEA and human growth hormone (HGH) – in both women and men. These steroids make us stronger and more confident all round. The robustness of the nervous system and heart–brain function relies on our physical fitness. This is logical; if we know in the back of our minds that we can’t run very fast or lift obstacles, then our survival is less certain. As soon as we start exercising and feel our muscles gain strength and tone, we immediately feel more able. Body movement enhances brain connections and function in a variety of ways, which means mental focus also improves. Whether you’re in the gym, in your local park, even in the kitchen between stages of cooking a meal, you can build your own personal strength- training programme, exercising three times a week for ten minutes. These exercises require no equipment; instead you use your environment.

Core stability is vital for overall strength. For your personal programme, choose five resistance movements, then put them in a sequence, alternating upper and lower body, and repeat the whole sequence four times. (For example: squats, push-ups, lunges, shoulder presses and step ups.) Always work with correct postural alignment and muscle engagement. For example, with lunges, keep the spine long and shoulders easy; with chest presses, retract the muscles just below the shoulder blade to stabilise the shoulder joint, always engage the core to support the spine throughout. Movements with the correct focus work a lot more of the body than just the target area.


Stretching our bodies in order to stretch our minds is important for all-round flexibility. There is a growing body of research that shows how yoga and Pilates classes help develop mental agility, and the flexibility stretches included in the book will achieve this, too. Stretching in the swimming pool, using the buoyancy of water to support the joints, helps dense muscle bulk to stretch better by encouraging tense muscle fibre to release, and creating space in the muscle fibres and joints.

LIFE HACK: Begin a physical stretch of your choice now. As you stretch, practise psychological flexibility. Notice your thoughts and feelings. Remind yourself that some things hurt, some things don’t – that doesn’t make them good or bad, right or wrong. Rather than judge your body and how your body feels, observe and accept it. Feel how much more agile that makes you overall.

• Walking is perfectly acceptable as your main form of exercise or as an activity on days when you are not strength training. If current trends continue, it is estimated that by 2020 the average British citizen will become so sedentary they will expend only 25 per cent more energy per day than if they spent the whole day sleeping. Being inactive can take three to five years off your life. The minimum activity level for adults aged between nineteen and sixty- four should be 2.5 hours of moderate activity, such as walking, per week, in bouts of ten minutes or more. (Read our book for several other flexibility fitness moves.)

We can’t overstate the importance of hydration for fitness and flexibility. Muscles need water in order to maintain their elasticity. The flexibility movement sequence in the book enables the body’s fluids to move, flush and refresh the body and brain. This is more effective when the body is well- hydrated.


The most important aspect of fitness for resilience is aerobic exercise, getting the heart rate up and down regularly – aim for three times per day. This makes our physical recovery and renewal system robust and enables us to recover quickly from mental and emotional pressure (the same system, the parasympathetic nervous system, is used for all three). Extensive research supports the view that exercise is a cure for depression and responsible for improved cognitive function and health. Studies from Japan in 2014, for example, show that thirty minutes of mild daily exercise significantly improves executive function, decision- making and focus. If you are intentional about it, you can incorporate aerobic exercise into your daily routine – walking briskly to work, riding the bike rather than driving, gardening, doing housework, etc. Intense interval training for fitness is the best, quickest and most effective way to build resilience. Regardless of what you do, always stretch after exercising. Use massage for recovery to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system.


We also need to push ourselves physically in our fitness regime to build stamina and energy reserves that will sustain the physical, emotional and mental effort required in tough times. It is wise to train for endurance at easier times rather than waiting until we are under duress.

If by the end of your working day you are physically exhausted, then your focus becomes ‘just keep going’ rather than the quality of the decisions you are making. Just as a rugby or football player is able to make better game decisions towards the end of the match if they are physically fit, a doctor or nurse doing a long shift will make better decisions towards the end of that shift if they are physically fit.

Fitness for endurance requires building up your capacity gradually to work that bit harder, increasing distance, numbers of repetitions and circuits and working against resistance. Long distance cycling, running and walking are fantastic endurance sports, increasing longevity because they keep our internal organs youthful. Any type of exercise can improve your endurance if you add challenge. Push a bit harder, recover, push a bit harder, recover. However, if you are over forty, be extra- careful about how you build up your endurance. Too often people in their twenties and thirties want to get back to previous fitness levels, start training again too hard and too fast, resulting in injury. Patience is required; take small steps.

During any exercise, always remember to breathe. By doing so in a regular pattern to fit with the particular exercise you are doing, you will find a rhythm and increase natural DHEA while training. Remember, too, that simply taking the stairs is a great workout for your thighs, calves and gluteus maximus (bottom) muscles.

For more information about how Physical Intelligence can help you, your team or your organization, visit us at or order our book, on sale now.

About Companies in Motion

There are over 80 easy to use techniques and tips to build our Physical Intelligence -- the neuroscience-backed approach to detecting and actively managing the balance of eight key chemicals in our bodies and brains so that we can take charge of our body, brain, schedule and life. You can read about all of them in our new book, Physical Intelligence: Harness Your Body’s Untapped Intelligence to Achieve More, Stress Less and Live More Happily available from Simon and Schuster. (Order here.) (Multiple translations will be available later in 2019.)

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