How to 'Work Out' Your Heart: A Guide to Building Emotional Strength

07/15/2014 11:05 am 11:05:17 | Updated Sep 14, 2014
Tetra Images - Mark de Leeuw via Getty Images

Most of us aspire to be in peak physical condition, so we take the stairs instead of the elevator, train for races or join a gym. We invest our money, time and energy into working out our bodies. We even plan our days around that cycle or yoga class, because, after all, if we don't make exercising a priority, we won't do it.

The benefits of physical exercise are endless and engrained in our minds at a very young age. However, an important workout regimen we overlook is the one that exercises the "heart" muscle.

I know the heart is an organ that needs standard exercise to thrive, but I'm talking about the heart in a figurative sense. Since it's natural to associate emotional strength and well-being with the heart, what if we gave the same care and focus in learning to work out our heart muscle the same way we work out and strengthen our bodies?

Dr. Scott Bea, clinical psychologist at Cleveland Clinic, said it best: "It rarely occurs to us that we can practice new attitudes, new emotional responses or characteristics."

Fortunately, some of the very same training techniques that we use to improve our bodies can also apply to our emotional and psychological fitness:

Warm Up/Cool Down
Warming up, stretching and cooling down are essential to physical workouts. They are what prepare your body before a workout, keep your muscles loose and bring your body back to equilibrium after. Similarly, self-love is what's essential to opening your heart.

woman look in bathroom mirror

Maximize the start and end of your days with repetitions of self-love:

As a warm up, start your day with self-affirmations to build your confidence and courage. Are you currently worried about something? Do you have a big day ahead of you? "Affirmations are a great way to center yourself, and how you start your day is critical to your overall happiness and how you live each moment," international life coach Shannon Kaiser explains. She suggests telling yourself, "All is in right order, I am right where I need to be to get to where I want to go, I accept myself fully in this moment." Or you can try one of these.

At the end of the day, center yourself with meditation. There are several ways to meditate and stay in tune with your heart and its needs. Next time you've had a busy day, take a few minutes to take deep breaths after work. This will help you know when it's time to say no to plans, put yourself first or even unplug to avoid burnout. Before you sleep every night, take a few minutes to let your mind be at peace, either reflecting on your day or letting it go from your mind altogether. With this mindfulness, you'll be able to better manage stress and gain fresh perspective on situations.

Build Stamina With Practice
Physical stamina is important because it is the power to physically perform at maximum efficiency and capacity. Similarly, emotional stamina is as necessary and demanding. Building emotional stamina is a matter of give and give -- give to yourself and give to others. The more you put compassion and generosity into practice, the easier it will become.

compassion

Compassion (kindness, empathy, thoughtfulness, giving) is the general concern for other people's well-being, and it can be extended through the day to strangers or friends. Recognize we are all human beings with the same basic needs for love, food, shelter, acceptance and happiness. Maintain this perspective every day as you interact with people of all moods and in all circumstances. Gratitude is the second source of emotional stamina. It's having awareness every day that you are alive and that you are blessed (in ways others may not be). It's seeking out and appreciating the wonder in the world.

Exercises to improve your emotional stamina:

  • Volunteer your time with no expectation of anything in return; this can be lending a hand to strangers or signing up for a structured event. Furthermore, ask and learn about your company's volunteer days policies and use them. "We don't need a reason to share the love, we just have to take the step to do it," explains Kaiser. "Simply ask how can I help, instead of what can I get."
  • Raise money for a charity. (If done through a walk or race, this can be a good way to work out your body and your heart.)
  • Don't hold back nice thoughts. Next time you're thinking a compliment or praise, whether it's thinking the person on the subway is well-dressed to appreciating how work was done in the office, say it freely.
  • Learn and address people by their names to create a personal connection or alliance.
  • Be conscientious of other people's feelings and time: Is someone huffing and puffing in line behind you at Starbucks? If you're not pressed for time, let them in front of you. Are you witnessing a customer rudely talk to an employee? Write a quick note or say something positive to lift the employee's spirits.
  • On that note, don't make quick judgments of people's actions, unless you know their whole story. And don't be a lesser version of yourself, because someone else isn't being his or her best self. Who you want to be is dictated solely by your choices.
  • Make a gratitude list of 10 things you are grateful for, every day, for a month. You'll find that you've started to take people and overlooked luxuries (like the ability to have Internet to read this post) for granted. Professor of Psychology at UC Davis Robert Emmons' advice is to remember that the most important lesson about trying to become more grateful is to not focus on yourself.

You never know the difference you will make in another person's life. And remember: What you put out into the world is what you get back in.

Endurance
Physical endurance is tested by the length of time of your performance rather than the level at which you are performing. The way compassion and gratitude provide everyday stamina for connecting with and living among others, positivity is absolutely necessary for your life-long capacity to endure, adapt and acclimate to anything that comes your way.

positivity

In order to not only survive but also thrive in life, you should be equipped with these three things:

  • The understanding that you have everything it takes to get through your struggles.
  • Faith in yourself, in humanity and perhaps in anything greater.
  • Knowledge that sometimes coincidences aren't real, and sometimes, everything just happens for a reason. As The Huffington Post President and Editor-in-Chief Arianna Huffington says in her book Thrive: "We don't have to know what coincidences mean, or arrive at some grand conclusion when we encounter them ... the combination of improbability, timing, and felicity has a kind of magic power. To the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, coincidences were the 'wonderful pre-established harmony' of the universe."
If you are able to look at the bright side and understand that each struggle is a greater opportunity for transformation, you can endure all that doesn't kill you. The optimistic heart is one that is resilient, one that can cope better and one that suffers lower rates of depression.


Stretch Out of Your Comfort Zone
Being physically flexible allows you to maximize and utilize the full range of motions of your body. The same applies to emotional flexibility. It's essential to become flexible as your life and the people in it change (for better or worse).

man on bench

Patience provides the heart with the necessary range of movement to deal with various situations. Along with patience comes the practice of forgiveness. This is simply accepting that other people's choices are their own and not relative to you -- regardless of whether you keep them in your life or not.

Exercises to flex your heart muscle:

  • Be tolerant of other people -- their opinions, their belief system, their way of living and their situations -- and respect their individuality.
  • Know the difference between what you can and can't control. As my favorite quote by Denis Waitley goes: "Change the changeable, accept the unchangeable, and remove yourself from the unacceptable."
  • Act on your inspiration, the pull of your heart. Kaiser explains that, "this will allow you to be comfortable in the unknown. We can develop more patience by trusting ourselves more, we can do this by nourishing the nudges that come to us."

All of these training routines are intertwined the same way different physical workouts contribute to each other. By practicing one exercise, you strengthen your heart to improve in the others, and in the process, you build emotional strength. Strength that fuels your decisions to connect with other people, be authentic and maintain a happy and positive perspective through life.

It's time to be intentional and make working out your heart as important as working out your body, not just for the health benefits but also to be your best self and contribute to a better world.