Feeling Stressed? Step 3: Focus on Fitness

During Mental Health Awareness Month Kevin Chapman from the Physical Intelligence Institute, who was guest on episode 108 of the Access to Inspiration podcast, shares five steps to reduce stress.

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.

man push up on white floor

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.)


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.

Walking is perfectly acceptable as your main form of exercise or as an activity on days when you are not strength training. 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. 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.

woman with red top and black shorts on purple yoga mat


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, showed 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.