What is mental fitness? A how-to for exercising your brain

September 24, 2021 - 21 min read

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How does mental fitness help?

How does mental fitness work?

What are the benefits of mental fitness?

Why it’s important to pay attention to your mental fitness

How can you exercise your brain?

9 ways to get more mentally fit, starting today

5 mental fitness examples

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As with physical fitness, mental fitness has far-reaching benefits. But what does it mean to exercise your mind? Can the brain do crunches?

We know the importance of physical fitness. And we have many options to develop it: with a trainer at the gym, at a HIIT class, or walking and running outside. We each have our own blend of activities to maintain the health and well-being of our body.

The result? You develop muscles that help you function better in your day-to-day life. You are stronger, leaner, have more energy or endurance, and are less prone to accidents and injury.

Functioning at a higher state of health, you are "fit." Fit to respond to the demands of every day (carrying shopping bags, running after pets and children) as well as more able to enjoy life. Developing optimal health can bring more positive emotions, less stress, and a sense of achievement.

The good news is, you can enjoy similar benefits from developing your mental fitness, too!

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How does mental fitness help?

Mental fitness can be defined as having and maintaining a state of well-being and cultivating awareness of how we think, behave and feel.  

Just as physical fitness provides us with an increased ability to respond to life in all its richness, mental fitness helps in the same way. It provides us more space to choose how to respond to a situation, whether that situation is a forethought, an external stimulus, or a feeling. As a result, we are less likely to sustain (or cause) emotional and relational injury.

Consider what happens if you find yourself in an argument with your spouse. Your spouse says something in anger that is hurtful. When we're in a reactionary mode, we fire back, straight out of the core of that hurt. Your arrow lands, and your spouse responds in-kind. And so on, leaving you both feeling out of control and strained.

When you are more mentally fit, you recognize that you have a choice when that first angry statement comes your way. Mental fitness gives you the ability to pause and respond in the way you would like, in the moment, rather than having to reset or mend fences later. In some ways, it’s like accessing the wisdom of hindsight in the present moment.

How does fitness help mental health? When we're mentally fit, the way we interact with the world is different. It isn't just one interaction with a spouse. It is the cumulative effect on our emotional health. Imagine being less reactive in all of the hundreds of interactions we have every week. As the example above shows, we are choosing how to be and how to respond, rather than ping-ponging from one reaction to another. Over time, that adds up to a lot less stress and negative emotion.

In the same way that our physical fitness also affects our mental health, our mental fitness ultimately affects our physical health and wellness.

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How does mental fitness work?

Our brains carry thoughts along neural pathways. These pathways are like ruts that have been created and reinforced over time. If you always take the same route to work, you may notice that you can get there on "autopilot." When we repeat a certain thought pattern many times, that neural pathway is reinforced, and the thinking becomes automatic.

While a daily routine can be good, when it comes to our thought patterns, we need to be aware of what our routines are and what pathways we're inadvertently reinforcing.

The issue with automatic thinking (or thinking fast, as Daniel Kahnemann calls it) is when it causes us to react in ways that are unhelpful in the current situation. Our reactions are based on well-worn pathways to past emotions or triggers. 

As you build mental fitness, you have the awareness, mental strength, and agility to identify options and choose another route. What would I like to have happen here? Where would I like to go? Too often, we are acting, speaking, and thinking automatically or unconsciously.

Automatic thinking comes from our survival brain, the limbic system. It is constantly scanning the environment for threats and has been throughout evolution. We inherited the limbic system from chimps and it can protect us. But in the modern world, it can give rise to thoughts and actions that hurt us, too.

It is the human part of the brain that we can develop and re-program. With the same deliberateness that we strengthen certain muscles or fine-tune a movement, we can create neural pathways that better serve us and benefit our lives. This is the essence of what we mean by mental fitness training.

What are the benefits of mental fitness?

Developing the skills for better mental fitness can benefit you and everyone around you.

  • Being present. In a mindful state, we can better retain information, listen, and be aware of, but not sabotaged by, distractions. This results in more enjoyment of life and better relationships and the ability to relate to others.
  • The ability to respond, not react. When we have more control over our automatic thoughts, we can choose to respond in a more rational and less emotive way. This improves our relationships and the way we think about the world and preserves more options in any environment.
  • Improved cognitive function. Better focus, processing speed, memory, concentration, time management, and communication have a positive impact, personally and professionally. Relationships improve as a result of remembering information about friends and family, important events, and being on time.
  • Increased positive emotions: optimism. With increased awareness comes the ability to notice and reframe thoughts in more helpful ways. Kinder thoughts and compassion shape optimistic mindsets that lead to more positive behavior.
  • More confidence. With optimism, our relationship with ourselves becomes stronger. Self-esteem and self-efficacy - the belief in our abilities - increase, and we may focus more on our strengths. Self-compassion and empathy increase as a result of practicing mindfulness.
  • Ability to develop positive habits in all areas of life. The need to form new, better-adapted habits never stops. Self-efficacy, mindfulness, and time management improve our ability to build habits.
  • Improved sleep. As with physical fitness, mental fitness also contributes to better quality sleep.
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Why it’s important to pay attention to your mental fitness

Our chimp brain produces a negativity bias  we have one positive thought to every three negative thoughts. This can result in cognitive errors. Common biases include “all or nothing” or polarized thinking, where we label situations as absolutes. We say, “she never listens” or “I am always late” instead of addressing the present situation.

Assumption is also rooted in the chimp brain. We store unconscious bias here and jump to conclusions without looking for evidence first. Mind-reading, or believing we can guess the feelings or thoughts of others, is another cognitive error — we suspect threat and aim to protect against it. We also fall into language that carries obligation and guilt, such as must/should.

If we remain unaware of them, these cognitive errors can wreak havoc in relationships, at work, on our self-esteem and in all areas of life. Working with a coach can help you to recognize your cognitive errors when they are happening. Adopting a regular meditation practice can also increase your awareness. 

Although we cannot control the nature of our chimp brain, we are responsible for learning its tendencies and managing it, like owning a dog.

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How can you exercise your brain?

You can sharpen memory and cognitive function by playing games,  puzzles, and some brain training apps that improve processing speed.

The best exercise, however, might be mindfulness. Learn how to meditate. As a trained mindfulness teacher and practitioner, I've seen the benefit that my coaching clients gain from developing this skill. Making it as regular in your routine as taking a shower is one of the very best gifts you can give yourself and others in your life.

Make a regular practice of ten to fifteen minutes per day of sitting with your eyes closed, or if that’s uncomfortable, softly focusing on something. You can train your attention muscle to remain focused on what you tell it. You learn to be the observer of your thoughts and achieve detachment from your thoughts. You learn that thoughts are transient and see the choice you have of which thoughts you give attention to.

The real skill you are developing is being more able to notice when your attention has been distracted by thoughts. When you notice your distraction in meditation, you become more able to notice when you are distracted in daily life. You recognize when you are thinking something disempowering. You recognize that your chimp brain is pushing a cognitive error.

Revisiting the roads and pathways metaphor, it is like having more lights on the road and more signs that mark routes (thoughts) to preferable, more positive destinations (behaviors). When you develop the ability to notice thoughts and reframe them, you get to a more conscious response and potentially new behavior.

The act of thinking about what we are thinking is called metacognition. It’s important to practice aim for metacognition because 95% of our thoughts are unconscious. Often, the automatic thinking happens, we react, and it’s too late. This might show up as habits you want to stop — mindless eating, worrying about what we read in the news, sending a text that we regret, or spending beyond our means.

Regular mindfulness practice creates a heightened awareness, or consciousness. This allows us to develop more resilience, emotional regulation and positive emotions.

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9 ways to get more mentally fit, starting today

  1. Get physical exercise. The mind and body are interconnected. Just as mindfulness can relax the muscles of the body, working out can relax the mind and relieve stress and tension. It can also play into the sense of achievement, which is a cornerstone of Martin Seligman’s model of happiness, PERMA.
  2. Eat and drink smart. Stay hydrated as your brain needs water for optimal cognitive functioning. A variety of multi-colored fruits and vegetables daily supports optimal gut health and brain health.
  3. Meditate daily. Create a routine that works for you, and commit to it. Just fifteen minutes per day is enough to see significant changes over time. And like training a dog or working out,  consistency is key. If you're new to it, start with a beginners program on an app such as Headspace or Tripp. Once you’ve learned the basics all you need is a timer.
  4. Keep a gratitude journal. This can be as simple as a word document on your computer or a physical, hand-written notebook. Update it regularly and keep it visible. Cultivating an "attitude of gratitude" helps to develop more positive emotions and shift our thinking toward optimism. Many studies show a positive correlation between improved health and optimism.  The mind really does have an impact on our health overall.
  5. Make noticing new things part of your day. This can be as simple as setting a goal to notice three times when you have gone from sitting to standing throughout the day. It's a lot harder than it sounds. We are mostly in our unconscious, or automatic mind when we are doing this action. Noticing trains your brain for increased mindfulness.
  6. Practice savoring. Savoring is an intervention from Applied Positive Psychology. It involves slowing down during certain moments over a five-day period. These moments can include hugging a loved one, eating a meal, drinking a cup of coffee, the first breath of fresh air when stepping outside, or how good it feels to crawl into bed after a long day.
  7. Practice noticing your thoughts. Reframe wherever possible. Ask yourself: Is this helpful? Is this kind?
  8. Practice body awareness. Sit with your eyes closed or softly focused for five minutes and scan your body. Place your attention in each body part starting at the top of your head and working your way down to your toes. Wherever you notice tension, focus and breath consciously until the tension is released. Do this daily to increase awareness of what’s going on in your body. What does it want you to know? Train your attention to remain focused on specific points.
  9. Remind your chimp. Keep a list of enabling thoughts (new neural pathways) that you would like to believe in a visible location, such as on a post-it note. This can be anything from “I take inspired action” to “I have received great feedback and know I can do it.” A visible reminder helps assure the chimp brain that we have evidence that it is safe.

5 mental fitness examples

Remember, building mental skills and being mentally fit and strong doesn't mean that you'll always be happy or never suffer setbacks. So what does mental fitness look like?

Here are some examples of what your life looks like when you are mentally fit: 

  1. Setting healthy boundaries. You have comfortable boundaries between various parts of your life and within your relationships. You naturally establish these and feel comfortable re-establishing boundaries when you notice something isn't working for you.
  2. Taking time for inner work. You make a regular practice of getting in touch with your emotions and values and checking in on your goals and alignment with your values. 
  3. Exploring new ideas and interests. You feel calm, open, and curious. Things that are new or unknown are energizing rather than threatening or exhausting.
  4. Cultivating community. You are building and maintaining relationships that ground you in your values and help you challenge your thinking and beliefs. Community is both nurturing and supports your growth. 
  5. Expanding your comfort zone. From a stable emotional and social foundation, you lean into growth and stretch yourself with new challenges. You are resilient in failure and learn from it. 

Get started

With any kind of practice, regularity and consistency are crucial to build strength and fitness. A brain fitness program is no different. What is important is to start exercising your mind and developing your psychological core today.

Remember, in meditation, the aim is not to completely stop thought. Rather simply notice when you have been distracted and gently bring your attention back to the focal point, with a smile. When you do that, you are developing mental fitness.

Additional readings:

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Published September 24, 2021

Jenna Sinclair

Jenna is an expert in mindfulness and specializes in Applied Positive Psychology within her coaching approach. She bridges the gap between spirituality and science. This helps her clients learn how to recognize their negative thoughts and behaviors and develop a more authentic way of relating to the world in order to live intentionally, in a way that's true to them. Jenna conducted Master's thesis research on the positive effects of the sea on well-being.

Originally from Cornwall, UK Jenna grew up surrounded by the wild ocean and epic coastlines. She is always working on deepening self-awareness via daily meditation and making time to play!

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