09/29/2016 10:06 EDT | Updated 09/29/2016 10:06 EDT

The Psychological Benefits Of Endurance Training

Outdoor cross-country running in summer sunshine concept for exercising, fitness and healthy lifestyle
BrianAJackson via Getty Images
Outdoor cross-country running in summer sunshine concept for exercising, fitness and healthy lifestyle

As a psychologist, I hear so many stories of grief, heartache and pain. No one is without life challenges. No one is immune to daily stressors, frustration, disappointment or loss.

Helping people is not only about listening and talking through life issues. It's also about helping them recognize internal strengths, and garner their own psychological resources so they can navigate obstacles inherent in life. This facilitates greater quality of life, more enjoyment, less fear, even joy.


The Benefits of Endurance Exercise

I encourage all of my patients to exercise, placing particular emphasis on activities that involve endurance training. This involves exercise routines that require pushing past what's comfortable in order to sustain longer periods of activity, ultimately building muscular endurance and cardiovascular endurance. Running, cycling and swimming are commonly known for endurance, but yoga, Pilates, weight training, rowing, hiking and speed walking are also good examples.

Here's why endurance training is so good for us...

Harold's Story: Exercise for Mental Toughness

Harold, a burly 66-year old man, came into therapy five months after he lost his wife. He had never been in therapy before. His brown eyes were heavy when he explained, "I... I just can't get back into the swing of things. I don't feel like doing anything. I thought it would get easier, but it's not." A tear trickled down his cheek. I could feel his grief.

We spent the first couple of sessions talking about his loss and the difficulties he was having in motivating himself to reengage with his life. Harold felt broken and was having tremendous difficulty getting through his day. His emotional resources were drained and the grief enveloped him, leaving him feeling sluggish, fragile, even apathetic. He had a lucrative business and needed to be present at work, but was struggling to do the bare minimum.

Harold had mentioned that he used to cycle, lift weights and run. In our third session, I suggested that Harold begin an exercise routine. Although resistant to exercising at first, saying, I'm too tired, he finally agreed. He began cycling and weight lifting. Over the next month he started to gain endurance: he could cycle for longer periods and lift heavier weights. As he pushed his body, he felt emotionally stronger and in more control of his mood. He conveyed a more optimistic outlook. Harold began to show resilience: the capacity to adapt and respond to adversity and/or stress and to bounce back, often times stronger than before.

Endurance training is good for us both physically and psychologically, increasing energy levels, boosting confidence and engendering a sense of well-being. But it's more than that.

Our mind and body are intimately connected. When we push ourselves physically, our mind -- our psychological self -- becomes stronger as well. Physical endurance builds emotional fortitude, mental toughness and resilience. It teaches us that we are stronger than we thought and capable of more than we imagined.

Endurance training teaches people this on a fundamental and intuitive level, sometimes in a way that is beyond anything we can comprehend through intellectual knowledge. The body registers the discomfort of endurance, then pushes past it, even if it's only one more swim lap, two more minutes of running, or one more squat. Each time we push through something hard or painful, we learn we are stronger than we thought. As our body learns physical resiliency, we come to know it psychologically as well.

Sarah's Story: Exercise as Meditation

Endurance exercise can also be meditative, offering a psychological space free from intrusion, and a way to clear thoughts, relax and rejuvenate. It can be a form of mindfulness. Sarah, a petite, 69-year-old woman with blonde hair, described feeling anxious, being unable to relax and having ruminative thoughts that interrupted her sleep. She was not a regular exerciser, and preferred sedentary activities such as reading, knitting and puzzles.

After a few sessions, I introduced the idea of endurance exercise to Sarah. She had mentioned that she used to swim in college, and agreed to go to the pool a couple of days a week and try swimming again. I asked her to focus on her arms in motion while she was swimming. In other words, I had her practice clearing her thoughts by concentrating on the cycle her arms went through in her swim stroke. She was to log her experience after each swim. This took Sarah quite a bit of practice, but slowly she became better at it. She began swimming three times a week consistently, working up to 20-30 minutes without stopping.

By paying attention to her body in motion, rather than the assortment of thoughts in her mind, it was easier for her to quiet her thoughts. Sarah was able to shut her ruminations while swimming and become present in the moment. This did not completely rid her of anxiety, but the ruminations lessened throughout her day and the swimming offered her a space free of anxiety -- a respite. Her face lit up when she told me: My exercise routine makes my whole day better. I have heard the same or similar sentiments from many other patients.

This practice can be applied to any endurance activity. Focus on the repetitive movement the body is going through, over and over. Relax and concentrate. If a thought intrudes, re-focus on the body's movement. Eventually other thoughts will silence, replaced by a meditative zone.

Life is not without difficulties. Problems can't be avoided; they need to be navigated. Endurance training teaches us how to be resilient, bounce back from stressors, and experience a sense of well-being. It shows us on a fundamental level that we're capable of more than we thought. And it offers a quiet place away from the intrusions of daily life, even our own thoughts. It offers us a sense of peace.

Editor's Note: Harold and Sarah's names were changed to protect their anonymity.

Dr. Jacqueline Simon Gunn is a Manhattan-based clinical psychologist and author. She holds master's degrees in both forensic psychology and existential/ phenomenological psychology, and has a doctorate in clinical psychology. Her specialties include eating disorders, trauma, interpersonal and relationship difficulties, alternative lifestyles and sports psychology.

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