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How to Use Exercise to Overcome Abuse and Bullying and Heal Your Brain

Physical Trainer Assisting Woman With Leg ExerciseMost therapists, doctors, and mental health professionals recommend exercise to combat depression and anxiety caused by abuse and bullying. However, at no fault of their own, they rarely offer a specific plan. That is because until now it has not been out there. But that has changed recently.

For the first time, we can align exercise routines with mental health issues for recovery. We can align changes to the brain that occur with specific mental health issues with specific movements designed to heal affected brain areas and make people feel better.

In this case, we are focused only on the long-term effects of abuse and bullying on the brain and how to heal the brain using a specific exercise routine. Chronic abuse shrinks or thins out the prefrontal cortex (front brain) and medial temporal cortex (deep, center brain) regions of the brain. This causes long-term emotional, social, and cognitive impairment. People who have been abused face problems that include difficulties planning, making decisions, and moderating social behavior. This causes a lifetime battle with anxiety and depression.

The first thing for anyone who has been victimized by abuse or bullying to understand is that the changes that occurred in your brain were the direct result of what someone else did to you. These changes in your brain are not your fault nor were they under your control. They were natural defense mechanisms. But the good news is that we now know exercise positively affects these same structures (prefrontal cortex and medial temporal cortex) that abuse and bullying hurt. Regular exercise increases the thickness of these thinned brain areas, healing the brain.

But, here is the critical point — different exercises affect the brain differently and it has to be a specific type of exercise structured in a specific way to help you. To combat the effects of abuse and bullying we have to use a specific exercise plan. Outlined here is an easy program to help you get started and use for however long you would like. Follow these steps for immediate results that will add up over time.

Step #1: Choose one exercise from the list below

  • Walking, jogging, and/or running
  • Stepping
  • Bicycling
  • Elliptical training

You are probably asking, why these forms of exercise only? The reason is that they are simple, rhythmic exercises that use patterns. The abused brain needs a consistent and predictable environment to heal. Additionally, as we will see later, chaotic and high-intensity exercise produces stress chemicals that actually cause anxiety!

Step #2: Get started

Literally, just start moving. You might be uncomfortable at first. It is normal. Most everyone is, and that is because during the first two minutes of exercise your heart and body are adjusting to the exercise. During this time your brain is beginning to respond to the pattern of walking, jogging, or stepping.

Give it 10 minutes and the endorphins or feel good chemicals will kick in making it easier. By 10 minutes the oxygen-rich blood has made its way to your brain. The prefrontal cortex (one of the areas affected by abuse and bullying) relaxes, creating a controlled environment abused brains crave. You’re in the “zone” and need to stay there for about 20 minutes. This is when your brain begins to heal.

Answers to your common questions:

  1. How fast should I go? A moderate, comfortable pace. You should be able to talk, but not hold a detailed, lengthy conversation.
  2. What if I cannot complete 20 minutes at once? Stop, rest, focus on your breathing, and start again. Do not sit down!

Some of the effects of exercise are immediate. Things like the endorphin kick and the increased sense of well-being you can feel right away. You will also feel good for about two hours after exercise because your brain will be getting more blood creating euphoria and a more productive and creative environment.

But for the long-term healing to truly take place, you will need to give it three to four weeks of four to five sessions per week of 20 minutes each. And you will have to keep it up. Just as muscles begin to lose mass after 48 hours of last activity, the brain requires constant engagement too.

One final note about exercise for recovery — we have all been told that we have to work out harder and follow difficult routines to see results. That is simply NOT TRUE! In fact, the opposite is true and we have had it wrong about the value of high-intensity exercise and programs that rely on “muscle confusion”. Prolonged high intensity, chaotic exercises that use too many different movements is counterproductive. These forms of popular exercise actually increase anxiety! They stimulate the release of pain and stress chemicals that cause worry.

Having said that, that is why simple, rhythmic exercises like cycling are recommended to heal the abused brain. Just get moving — whether you take a walk outside or on a treadmill take that first step to realizing the happiness that you deserve!

How to Use Exercise to Overcome Abuse and Bullying and Heal Your Brain

Amy Ashmore, PhD

Amy Ashmore holds a Ph.D. in Kinesiology from the University of Texas at Austin. She is the author of Timing Resistance Training: Programming the Muscle Clock for Optimal Performance (Human Kinetics, 2020), dozens of articles, blogs, training and continuing education programs recognized by National Strength & Conditioning Association (NSCA), American Council on Exercise (ACE), and American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM). Amy is former Sports Sciences faculty at Florida State University and the former Program Director for Sports Sciences at the American Military University. She is located in Las Vegas, Nevada.

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APA Reference
Ashmore, A. (2018). How to Use Exercise to Overcome Abuse and Bullying and Heal Your Brain. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 25, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 31 Jan 2017)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.