As modern women, we juggle many responsibilities and challenges each day, which can often take a toll on our physical and mental health. The stress of life can leave us feeling overwhelmed, burnt out, and stressed out — all of which only makes facing life’s challenges and maintaining a positive outlook even more difficult.
People often think that physical resilience and mental toughness are traits you either have, or you don’t.
But I’m gonna let you in on a little secret …
Durability is a skill. It’s something you can learn and improve. Yes, you can 100% build resilience.
Let’s explore my top 9 tips for building resilience to improve your overall physical and mental health, which can easily be incorporated into your daily routine.
Build resilience by cranking up the (exercise) intensity
As women get older, we’re told to lower the intensity of our workouts — like “here ladies, time for you to sit on the sidelines and stop being powerful.”
And this is having some really unpleasant and undesirable effects on our physical and mental health. Let’s talk about why that is.
The current guidelines when it comes to cardiovascular exercise is that we should all be getting at least 150 minutes of moderate or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity per week.
As women age, they tend to follow the advice of “gentle is better” and just stick to walking and gentle yoga and those are great for lots of reasons
… what women approaching and after menopause really need to do is take the intensity of their workouts up to help manage the hormonal changes that occur around peri- and post-menopause.
The best way to do this? Add in some sprint interval training (SIT) a few times per week.
SIT is a form of high intensity interval training (or HIIT). It involves super short (30 seconds or less), sharp sprint intervals at or very near max effort and output, followed by rest periods that are long enough for you to maintain that hard effort for each sprint interval so your output doesn’t drop off.
Here’s why these are so important for middle-aged and menopausal women to build resilience:
- SIT is superior to lower-intensity steady state exercise, like walking or easy running, for decreasing body fat, increasing lean muscle mass, improving blood sugar levels and glucose metabolism. All things women in this age group need more of through peri- and post-menopause as our hormone levels are changing.
- SIT fires up your fast-twitch muscle fibers, which are those quick burst, high-energy fibers that we lose first from lack of use and age. Having these quick-response muscle fibers working for you makes you less susceptible to falls — a common cause of injury in aging women.
With sprint intervals, you get (1) muscles that can respond well to keep you from falling and breaking a hip, (2) improved insulin sensitivity for better blood glucose control, and (3) increased fat burning – especially that stubborn belly fat that is more common in peri- and post-menopause.
With SIT we’re intentionally keeping the intervals short and the intensity sharp to limit the amount of excess cortisol (the main stress hormone) circulating in your system, especially during menopause when cortisol levels can already be elevated in some women.
Additionally, this higher intensity is better for managing anxiety — another common complaint among women in middle-age and beyond. A 2022 study found that the more intensely the study participants exercised, the more their anxiety symptoms improved.
And best of all, SIT takes less time — about 20 minutes — which is great if your plate is already full and it’s hard to find the time to work out for an hour.
My favorite way to add SIT is through tabata-style circuits. Do a warm-up, then push as hard as you can for 20 seconds, recover for 10 seconds. Repeat 8 times. That’s one round. Rest 5 minutes and do another round, working up to 3 rounds per session over time. This can be done with running, cycling, rowing, kettlebell swings, battle ropes, or pretty much any exercise that you can push for 20-second sprints.
Get stronger to be more durable
Getting older is inevitable. Becoming weak and fragile is optional.
Unfortunately, many of us are opting in for making our lives harder at that point when we retire and finally have the time to enjoy the fruits of our near-lifelong labors.
Our autonomy and ability to live independently rest with the choices we make in early middle age. And one of the best choices you can make to invest in your future quality of life is to lift heavy shit now and for as long as possible.
The quality of life benefits of heavy resistance training are well-documented — there’s no doubt that picking up weights regularly will significantly increase your physical and mental durability, no matter what your age, ability, or stage of life.
First, resistance training with heavy weights stimulates muscle stem cells to help you make and maintain muscle — something we could all use more of. This is especially important for women in the menopause transition and beyond, as hormonal changes make it harder to maintain muscle mass and strength.
Resistance training triggers hormones that support fat metabolism and reduce visceral fat, which is the deep belly fat that surrounds vital organs and increases the risk of insulin resistance, type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and breast cancer.
Plus, more muscle mass = better blood glucose control. Muscle pulls circulating glucose from your bloodstream without the help of insulin, so it helps manage your blood sugar levels WHILE improving insulin sensitivity — two important tasks for lowering your risk for type II diabetes.
Strength training with heavy weights prevents muscle loss and helps strengthen your bones and connective tissues which makes your body more durable and less susceptible to injury.
And resistance training also improves central nervous system function, which helps preserve our brain health and cognition with age.
For functional fitness and independence with age, focus on compound lifts like deadlifts, squats, lunges, and even Olympic lifts and aim for at least 2 total body strength training sessions per week (ideally 3+ days per week) using heavier weights and fewer reps (like 3-5 sets of 6 or fewer reps with full 1-3 minutes rest between sets).
Jump into your power for more natural resilience
The prevailing message out there for aging women is that low-impact workouts are better — they are not. And there is a pile of bone density research out there to back that up.
First, let’s remember that stressing our bodies is how we strengthen them and maintain the integrity of our bones. Without stress, our bodies would age more rapidly.
At the point in a woman’s life where her bones are most vulnerable, why are we telling her to stop doing the things that would greatly improve her bone density????
It’s time we stopped putting “low-impact” workouts on a pedestal. They are not superior and they may be exactly why your bones are aging so fast.
And it’s not just about your bones aging — force generation and impact absorption also keep your tendons, ligaments, and rapid-response muscle fibers (which are the first to go with age) strong, which reduces your risk of injury. Plyometric exercises improve coordination and balance, so your risk of falling is greatly reduced as well.
So allow me to make a case for plyometric (power) training:
- Plyometrics involves explosive movements, like jumping, hopping, throwing, and slamming.
- All you need is a few minutes added to your strength training sessions, 2-3 times/week, to get the benefits.
- Power training, when compared to moving and lifting slowly, may be superior for improving physical function in healthy older adults because power fades more rapidly than strength as we age. And the ability to react and exert force quickly is going to be more helpful for preventing falls and improving function than strength alone.
- Plyometrics are even more effective than running at building bone mineral density and reducing the risk of osteoporosis in women — due to the multi-directional stress applied.
- Plyometrics can also improve blood glucose control and insulin sensitivity for better metabolic health and prevention of chronic conditions like heart disease and diabetes.
Women generally have a lower proportion of type II (i.e. fast power-producing) muscle fibers than men and our bones are far more vulnerable as we age — making it even more important that we stop telling women to stick to low-impact exercises and start training them for power, strength, and speed.
NOTE: According to a 2019 study, when applied and progressed appropriately, jump training has been shown to be safe and effective for older people and people with low bone density. However, you may need to consult with your doctor regarding plyometrics and work with a qualified trainer with experience in this area.
Gain self awareness and train your vulnerable areas to better cope with stress
It’s a common belief that you should avoid testing areas of vulnerability and rest if you have pain. But for most situations, the opposite is true.
Like, for example, you’ve got a “tricky knee” or a lower back that “goes out” at completely random times. Many people interpret that to mean that they should guard those areas and not ask too much of them — and in doing so, they avoid exercises that could actually make those vulnerabilities feel safer and more stable.
Pain is a strange thing — but it doesn’t always mean there’s an injury there that needs to be rested and babied. In fact, most often, pain is a sign you need to work that area strategically.
Here’s why: pain is a signal of a threat in the tissues. Those achy areas are trying to tell you that they feel unsafe and unsupported. They are not asking for rest, they are asking for support. They are crying out for you to help them out by training the surrounding tissues to stabilize them better.
In exercise physiology, this is called training for specificity. The areas you train are the areas that improve. Exposure to the appropriate level of challenge recruits more support for stability, which decreases the perceived threat and reduces pain signaling.
Bottom line: you cannot rest your way to more strength and resilience.
Embrace physical challenges for more psychological resilience
Pushing ourselves physically through activities such as weight lifting, running, and training for big hikes helps us develop important life skills such as patience, perseverance, and goal-setting.
Physical challenges are essential for building both mental and physical toughness. Activities that challenge you can build psychological resilience, by gradually teaching you how to stick to a plan, how to troubleshoot on the fly, and how to pick yourself back up when you fail— all important skills for boosting your resilience.
By choosing to face challenges, we learn to better navigate the messy middle and we develop skills for managing discomfort. It’s one thing to pause and take some deep breaths in a controlled environment. It’s another thing to try do it in the middle of some uncomfortable stuff. That’s where training for tough challenges comes in — choose challenge now, develop your abilities, and you’ll be glad you did the next time life throws you a curveball.
Start by setting small goals and gradually increasing the intensity of your physical activity. By embracing challenges and pushing yourself outside your comfort zone, you’ll be able to develop your physical and mental strength over time.
Life is hard. Why not train to face it with courage, composure, and confidence?
Take stress down a notch with better coping strategies
Stress is an inevitable part of life, but it doesn’t have to control you. Your best defense is to train yourself to pause and soften your internal stress responses.
Breathing exercises and meditation techniques help you tap into the more relaxed functions in your nervous system to decrease agitation, anxiety, tension, and overwhelm while increasing mental clarity, focus, and attention, which can have a profound impact on physical and mental resilience.
According to scientific studies, regular meditation can reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression, improve sleep quality, and lower blood pressure — all of which will make you more physically and mentally durable.
Trust me, NONE OF US ARE GOOD AT THIS AT FIRST. Being able to quiet your mind is a skill that takes practice. Don’t let “not being good at sitting still or meditating” keep you from practicing this skill — or stress and anxiety will always rule your thoughts, feelings, actions, and results.
Start by dedicating just 1-3 minutes per day to deep breathing or guided meditation, gradually working your way up over time. By incorporating these techniques into your daily routine, you’ll be better equipped to handle stressful situations and maintain your focus and calm when things get tough.
Another option – being in nature, which can reduce stress, anxiety, and depression while boosting your mood and immunity. Nature exposure has even been shown to lower blood pressure.
Try to spend at least 20-30 minutes per day outside in nature, whether it’s taking a walk in the park, hiking in the mountains, or simply sitting in a garden. Spend time engaging in activities such as hiking, camping, or simply sitting outside to reap the benefits of nature exposure.
By unplugging and immersing yourself in the natural world, you’ll be able to recharge your batteries and improve your overall stress resilience too.
Getting enough sleep as a stress management strategy
Everything is harder when you’re not getting enough restful sleep.
Quality sleep is essential for physical and mental resilience because while you’re sleeping, your body and mind are being repaired and maintained.
A lack of sleep can lead to feelings of irritability, fatigue, and decreased cognitive function. It can exacerbate stress and anxiety, leading to physical and mental health problems.
On the other hand, a consistent sleep schedule of 7-9 hours can boost immune function, improve mental clarity, and help manage stress.
I hear it all the time — “I’m just a bad sleeper” or “I’ve always been a terrible sleeper.” Shutting down and sleeping well are skills that most of us can and should work on and develop.
To improve sleep quality, stick to a consistent sleep schedule, create a relaxing bedtime routine, avoid electronics before bedtime, and keep your sleeping environment cool, dark, and quiet can all help improve sleep quality.
By prioritizing good sleep hygiene, you’ll be able to recharge your batteries and feel more alert, refreshed, and resilient throughout the day.
Set and defend boundaries to minimize chronic stress
Living an intentional life requires focused effort and vigilance. With constant demands, expectations, and noise in the world, it can be tough to maintain your boundaries and preserve your mental and physical health.
Imagine your life as a castle surrounded by walls. Every day, there are feelings, limiting beliefs, old stories, your boss, your community, our culture, and shiny objects on social media – all trying to get in. Your job is to hold them off and stay committed to only what matters most to you.
Effective boundaries setting puts castle walls, gates, and a moat between you and all those distractions and outside expectations that are pulling at you for your time and attention. Boundaries around your time and energy reduce stress, preserve and improve your relationships, and increase your self-esteem and confidence.
Setting and defending your boundaries is your most powerful weapon for beating stress and overwhelm. It’s a practice that is critical for building emotional resilience and mental toughness. By saying “no” when you need to, you’re better able to prioritize your time and energy and avoid burnout and overwhelm.
To set and defend boundaries effectively, you first need to become of aware of your own needs and limits to prevent over-committing and communicate them assertively and respectfully. Also, identify where your boundaries are “leaking” and note if you’re always saying “yes” to everything, even when it’s not aligned with your values or priorities
Schedule your priorities and the time it takes to meet your basic needs first and practice saying “no” or “not right now” to things that will jam you up or steal your focus.
Need help learning how to schedule your priorities and create better boundaries around your time? This mini-course is for you.
By being intentional about how you spend your time and energy, you’ll be better equipped to handle challenges as they arise and maintain your physical and mental health over the long term.
Shift toward a growth mindset to boost positive emotions
One of the most powerful tools for building mental toughness is to shift from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset. A fixed mindset assumes that your abilities and qualities are predetermined, while a growth mindset believes that you can improve through effort, learning, and experience.
A growth mindset is one that sees that your abilities, skills, traits, and situation in life are changeable through effort and practice. By shifting toward a growth mindset about the challenges we face, we can cultivate a sense of learning, maximize growth opportunities, and dissolve any hopelessness we feel about our circumstances.
So by focusing on the effort you’re putting into process of improving by just 1%, rather than fixating on the outcome and how far we’ve got left to go, you can develop more resilience and perseverance. This involves seeing failures and setbacks as opportunities for skill-building, setting achievable goals, embracing challenges, and increasing our resilience.
By cultivating a growth mindset, you’ll be better equipped to handle challenges and setbacks, and you’ll have a more positive outlook on your ability to improve and grow over time.
Stress management is a lifestyle that can build resilience
Building physical and mental resilience is key to living a fulfilling life.
All of the tips, tools, and strategies offered here are ways to strategically add and subtract stress from your life so that you build resilience.
Start with just one of these strategies this week and notice the difference in your physical and mental strength over time.
Remember, building resilience requires consistent effort and patience, but it’s worth it for a healthier, happier life.
Ready to make some changes but not sure where to start? Let us help!
We offer a 6-month group coaching program for absolute beginners (StrongHer in 6) and a 12-month progressive program for already-active women (StrongHer365) who are looking for a complete training program built by a coach who’s an expert in durability and who understands the physiology of aging women.