What is “Mental Fitness”?

Most people know the importance of exercise and healthy eating for physical fitness. However, mental fitness gets very little press and when you ask most people what it means, they assume it’s referring just to good memory. New research is showing that mental fitness is far more complex than just being good at solving puzzles or doing crosswords. And like physical fitness, it’s something we have to use our mind to train the brain if we want to improve it.

Many myths still prevail about mental “unwellness”. We commonly still hear people say that not coping or being emotional is a sign of weakness or worse still, madness; that it’s “deserved” because of something awful the person has done; or that it’s just a “chemical imbalance” and a pill will make it better.

Current neuroscience is upending many of the old myths, and starting to reveal the incredible complexity of the brain, as well as how the mind (thinking) changes the brain. As a society we are not well equipped to build up our mental fitness. This means that when life delivers tough challenges, we’re poorly prepared and more often than not, don’t respond well to get life back on track. Devoting time to mental fitness means we are exercising the “mental muscles” needed to get ourselves out of tricky situations with minimal fallout.

Just as stretching, cardio and strength training are the foundations for physical fitness, there are also five crucial components of mental fitness. Each is explained below with one simple exercise you can do every day to strengthen it.

Mood management refers to the skill of managing your emotions – being able to down-regulate bad moods and up-regulate good moods. Moods have a profound influence on how we cope with life – an anxious mood can cause us to be more prone to worry; an angry mood can cause us to be more easily offended and irritated; a hopeful mood can help us plan more interesting and meaningful activities; a curious mood can help us explore and learn new things.

  • Daily exercise: Download a list of “positive emotions” off the internet, then every day, share a story or write about an experience you’ve had that day that activated one of the positive emotions on the list.

Positivity mindset refers to the skill of refocusing your thinking towards finding solutions to challenges and staying mentally focused on the important end-goals rather than spending many hours trawling round and round aimlessly imaging the worst. Not only are positive thinkers healthier and less stressed, cultivating affirmative thoughts and reducing negative self-talk strengthens your immune system, reduces blood pressure, and helps you sleep better.

  • Daily exercise: Reflect every day on three things that went well for you today, the things you accomplished, and the delightful moments you’ve experienced. To deepen the benefits of this, tell someone else about your daily best moments, or journal about them.

Personal strengths (also known as “signature strengths”) refer to our own unique set of coping resources or traits that provide the building blocks for many positive outcomes. For example, research shows that using signature strengths in a new way increases happiness and decreases depression for 6 months or more.

Flourishing relationships are the base for mental and emotional wellbeing. Recent advances in brain research have shown that the way we interact with other people and form social attachments are vital for brain development and health functioning, in fact even modifying the expression of our genes.

  • Daily exercise: Write a personal note of gratitude to someone who has contributed to
    your life in some way this week. Or simply tell somebody something you appreciate
    about them.

Finding meaning and knowing your life purpose are essential for wellbeing and buffering against psychopathology. Having a sense of what the world is about and why we are here provides the motivation to set personal goals and strive to make our own little piece of the place better. It provides us with a sense of past, present and future, which can be energising.

  • Daily exercise: Reflect on the three most significant contributions you’d like to leave the world, and consider actions you could take this week towards making sure these goals are achieved.

Dr Kate Lemerle

Published on February 8, 2016 by Kate Lemerle