7 Wellness Strategies to Build Resilience
Habits and tips to help you get through anything
This has been an unprecedented, challenging, and uncertain time for just about everyone. Which is why, perhaps now more than ever, cultivating resilience—the ability to bounce back after you’ve been knocked down—is essential. The first step: focusing on what you can control and trying not to waste energy on what you can’t. Fortunately, there are a handful of health and well-being practices that you can do to accomplish this goal. The following evidence-based strategies will help you build a solid, strong, and resilient body and mind.
1. Strength-Train at Home
It’s possible to develop a great workout routine without stepping foot in a gym—all you need is a few feet of open space and a $35 kettlebell.
Research suggests that the best way to build muscle is an approach called progressive overload—stress a muscle, let it recover, and then stress it more, gradually building up the stress level over time. It’s important to keep this formula in mind. Too much stress with not enough rest and you get injury, illness, or burnout. Not enough stress with too much rest and you don’t get stronger. Being healthy and strong doesn’t require heavy doses of high-intensity interval training or running 50 miles per week. You just need to follow this cycle of stress and rest, increasing the load as you go.
Do this workout two to three times per week, completing three sets of between six and fifteen repetitions for each exercise, progressing in a circuit. Rest about one minute between exercises and two to three minutes between each circuit. Over time, gradually increase the number of reps or the weight of the kettlebell, or both. For an aerobic boost, add 30 to 60 seconds of running in place or jumping rope between sets. Be sure to rest at least one day between workouts to let your body recover.
Begin with your chest down and palms pressing into the ground, thumbs at your nipples. Press up, locking your elbows at the top. Lower back down, so your chest gently touches the ground or hovers above it. Press up. Keep your core tight throughout the movement. For an easier option, place your hands on an elevated surface like a table or bench.
Stand with your feet slightly more than shoulder width apart, holding a kettlebell by the horns. Pull your shoulder blades back and hinge at the hips so the kettlebell swings between your legs. Thrust your hips forward and swing the kettlebell in front of you to shoulder height.
Stand with your legs slightly wider than shoulder width apart, feet pointing slightly out. Extend your arms out in front of you at shoulder height. Squat down, keeping heels on the ground and lowering your butt until it is at or just below your knees. Push up through both feet to stand, locking your knees at the top. For an extra challenge, hold a kettlebell at your chest.
Place a bench or other sturdy object one foot in front of you. Step up, placing your entire right foot on the step. Push through your foot to bring your left foot up. Slowly step down with your right foot, then left foot. That counts as one rep. Do all reps on one side, then switch after resting for a few seconds.
2. Go for a Walk
A 2018 study of over 50,000 people published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that regular, brisk walking was associated with a 20 percent reduction across all causes of death. While physical distancing is encouraged to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, most scientists agree that if you’re healthy and haven’t been recently exposed to the virus, the benefit of walking or running outdoors in uncrowded spaces outweighs the risk of transmission, especially if you avoid coming within six feet of other people. Want to increase the challenge? Find hilly terrain, carry a full backpack (aim for a weight that challenges you but doesn’t cause back pain during or after your walk), or, if you’re ready for it, mix in short bursts of running.
3. Don’t Skimp on Carbs
In 2018, a Stanford University study compared the effectiveness of low-fat and low-carb diets and found that there’s no significant difference between the two. Another study from 2017 had athletes eat a low-carb diet for three weeks and found that it impaired performance by reducing exercise efficiency. Eating carbs can also help the body stay resistant to illness and injury. Your muscles run on a substance called glycogen, which your body makes from carbohydrates. After strenuous exercise, you become glycogen depleted, which may lead to lower immunity. Additionally, research shows that trying to stick to a restrictive diet impairs willpower and emotional control, perhaps explaining why lots of people on stringent diets come off as grumpy and impatient. (Or maybe they’re just hungry all the time.)
Here’s a carb-filled yet healthy bowl from pro runner Shalane Flanagan and runner and nutrition coach Elyse Kopecky, adapted from recipes in their two cookbooks, Run Fast. Eat Slow. and Run Fast. Cook Fast. Eat Slow.
Spicy Black Bean and Sweet Potato Power Bowl
- 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 yellow onion, chopped
- 2 carrots, diced
- 2½ teaspoons fine sea salt, divided
- 3 cloves garlic, smashed
- 1 pound dried black beans (2¼ cups), soaked overnight, drained, and rinsed
- 1 chipotle chile pepper in adobo, chopped
- 1 three-inch piece kombu, 1 sprig fresh epazote, or 1 tablespoon dried epazote
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 bay leaf
- 2 large sweet potatoes (about 1½ pounds)
- ½ teaspoon garlic powder
- 1 tablespoon lime juice
- Steamed rice
- Guacamole or sliced avocado
Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat. Add the onion, carrots, and 2 teaspoons of salt and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about five minutes. Add the garlic and cook for one minute. Add the beans, chipotle, kombu or epazote, cumin, bay leaf, and just enough water to cover, about four to five cups. Bring to a boil. Cover, reduce heat, and simmer for one to two hours, testing for doneness after one hour. The beans should be creamy and crush easily between two fingers. To thicken the liquid, smash a few beans with a fork and simmer uncovered until desired consistency is reached. Prior to serving, add the lime juice, then season with salt to taste. To make the sweet potatoes, preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Cut the sweet potatoes into one-inch cubes, leaving the skin on. Place on the baking sheet and toss with 2 tablespoons olive oil, garlic powder, and remaining 1/2 teaspoon of salt. Spread out so they aren’t touching. Bake for 15 minutes, stir, and return to the oven for 10 to 15 minutes, or until the edges begin to brown. Serve the black beans and sweet potatoes over rice. Top with guacamole or avocado.
4. Look After Your Mental Health
While there’s no magic fix to help deal with the psychological turmoil caused by the past several months’ unrest, these tactics can help you maintain your mental well-being.
Move every day. Depression and anxiety hate an active target: the evidence is clear that regular movement helps prevent, manage, and even treat both conditions. Some of this is biological (exercise helps to balance three key neurochemicals in the brain: serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine) and some of it is psychological (pushing through physical challenges and getting stronger helps build self-reliance and self-confidence). It is, however, important to note that exercise is not a panacea. Think of it as a tool in the toolkit, which for more severe cases of mental illness could also include therapy and perhaps medication. (More on that below.)
Act first. On days when you’re down or anxious and want nothing but to sit in bed, nudge yourself into doing something—whether it’s calling a friend, accomplishing some creative work, exercising, or cleaning. Even if you have to force yourself, just get started. Research shows that behavioral activation—a strategy that involves doing something even if you don’t feel like it—is one of the most effective ways to change your mood. Intrusive thoughts and feelings are stubborn. This is why nonsense advice like “think positive” usually fails. Mood follows action. If you know your core values and act in alignment with them regardless of how you’re feeling, you give yourself the best chance at turning your mood around.
Feel the whole range. It’s OK to be happy about getting a promotion, having a child, launching a project, or celebrating an anniversary while simultaneously feeling sad about events that are happening in the world. The capacity to experience a wide range of feelings is a central component of psychological and emotional flexibility, and it’s associated with resilience and improved mental health. There are no wrong feelings. The only misstep is judging yourself for having them: “I should or shouldn’t be feeling this.” As my own therapist once told me, “Stop shoulding all over yourself.”
Get help if you need it. If you try the above and still feel overwhelmed by negative emotions, get professional help. Finding help doesn’t mean you’re weak—it means you’re strong. I know firsthand. I’ve taken medication and worked with a therapist for debilitating obsessive-compulsive disorder, and I’m not sure if I’d be writing this article if I hadn’t. If you feel like you need help right now, you can call the national suicide-prevention lifeline 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255. Hang in there. When you’re in the thick of it, mental illness seems everlasting and impossible to overcome, but it can—and usually does—get better.
5. Stay Connected
Humans evolved to survive in groups. Though nothing can replace IRL connection, when that’s unavailable, technology can help. There’s little research on the best ways to use digital media during a pandemic and unprecedented levels of social detachment, but in my experience with coaching individuals virtually, the more present you can be for the conversation, the better. If you’re multitasking while on Zoom or on your phone, you might not be that satisfied when you hang up. In other words, when you are talking to someone, really be present. Close the other browser windows on your computer and turn off the television. Research shows that multitasking can be associated with lower satisfaction with the task at hand—anyone who has surfed the web while on the phone and felt kind of discontented afterward knows the feeling.
6. Nail the Basics
In a world full of wellness hacks and pseudoscience, it’s more important than ever to understand what healthy living looks like. Most of the large-scale, population-based research points to just a few core principles: if you get these right, you’re on your way to a long and healthy life.
- Move your body regularly.
- Avoid processed foods and eat lots of plants.
- Maintain a healthy body weight.
- Don’t smoke. (Get help quitting if you do.)
- Don’t exceed more than one alcoholic drink a day for women and two for men, if you drink at all.
- Stay engaged and connected with your community.
7. Don’t Skimp on Sleep
When you’re in a deep Slumber, your body releases anabolic hormones like testosterone and human growth hormone, both of which are critical to health and physical function. What’s more, a 2007 study published in the journal Sleep shows that with each additional uninterrupted sleep cycle, you generate more of these hormones. Hours seven through nine—the hours we’re most likely to skimp on—may actually be the most powerful. And it’s not just physical: research shows that sleep is associated with better mental health and emotional control.
Good sleep hygiene starts the minute you wake up. Here’s how you can prepare for a proper night’s rest all day long.
6 to 9 A.M. Wake up. While all exercise is good exercise, some researchers believe it’s best to do it early. Exercise releases endorphins, which can create brain activity that keeps some awake. It also elevates body temperature, which can increase wakefulness. That said, while evidence that exercise facilitates good sleep is strong, the data on the timing of exercise and sleep isn’t all that robust. If you currently work out in the afternoon or evening and sleep well, don’t fix what isn’t broken.
9 A.M. to 12 P.M. Go outside or open the blinds. Natural light triggers a cascade of hormones that help to maintain a balanced circadian rhythm, the body’s natural clock.
12 to 3 P.M. If you need it, enjoy your last coffee of the day. The effects of caffeine can last up to eight hours.
6 to 8 P.M. Eat dinner. While the timing here is very individual, a hyperactive digestive system can get in the way of falling asleep, so aim for at least two hours between your last meal and bedtime. If you’re going to drink alcohol, limit yourself to one drink, as alcohol can interfere with deep sleep.
9 P.M. Turn off screens. Research shows that staring at blue light before bed makes it harder to fall asleep. Put work and—even worse—the news away, as it can cause stress and set your mind racing.
9 to 12 P.M. Before hitting the hay, set the scene. Use curtains or blinds to make your bedroom as dark as possible, and lower the thermostat so your room is a little cooler than the rest of the house. Decreased body temperature is associated with deeper slumber.