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Published June 7, 2021
What is mental fitness, and does it involve lifting weights? Not exactly — but your mind can still get fit, and you’ll feel better for it. Learn the difference between mental fitness and mental health, and how to build your mental muscles.
What exactly is mental fitness, and how does it feel to be mentally fit?
Mental fitness can be defined as having the skills and practices to improve and sustain your own state of well-being and perform at your best. It involves developing core psychological resources and becoming aware of how you think, behave, and feel. When you are mentally fit, you lean into challenges and feel able to navigate change and stress, no matter what day-to-day life presents. Mental fitness enables you to reconnect with what it is that you love in your work and your life.
Mental fitness is more than the absence of mental illness. It’s beyond self-care and recovery. It's about growth and thinking, feeling, and performing at your best in all areas of your life. Mental fitness is developed by equipping people to treat mental health as something that they can strengthen and improve.
When you’re physically not well, you know it — the symptoms come on and you know it’s time to get some sleep (and a cup of tea). When you’re experiencing anxiety, depression, or a sense of languish, you don’t always know it.
When it comes to our physical health, many of us aspire for more than just to get back to “fine” — that is, the absence of undesirable symptoms. We know that, even if we're not ill, we can increase our fitness and health to achieve a goal or level of performance. Our physical fitness can be integral to our desired way of life.
The same can be true of our mental health. Fine is just fine — it’s not thriving. And that’s not good enough. With our mental health, we don’t even know the upper bounds of how fit we can become. Mental fitness embraces the idea that individuals can develop a positive mental state that exceeds “fine.”
What does mental fitness feel like?
When you are mentally fit, you feel fully functional and confident of your ability to affect your own state. It isn’t that you feel “happy” all the time or that you never languish. When you dip into languish, you don’t panic, and you don’t stay there very long.
When you’re mentally fit, you spend more of your time feeling:
- Present and connected to those around you
- Well-rested and enthusiastic
- Energized, focused, and able to remember short-term information
- Capable of dealing with life’s stressors
- Eager to take on new challenges and pursue interests
- Creative and regularly experience flow
- Able to resolve difficult emotional patterns without being overwhelmed by them.
The difference between mental fitness and mental health
There’s a tendency to define mental health by what it’s not. In other words, if you’re not mentally ill, you must be mentally healthy. But that’s far from the truth. The absence of acute mental illness doesn’t mean that you’re well. Despite the frequent connection to mental illness, mental health just refers to a spectrum of states from low to high, and mental health is distinct from mental fitness.
Mental health professionals, like counselors, therapists, and psychiatrists, generally treat mental health disorders and mental illness. Psychological disorders affect how people function in their daily lives. The most common of these (anxiety and depression) are rooted in emotions — leading to their classification as mood disorders. Because the emotions (fear and sadness) are consistent and severe, they become debilitating. The goal is to restore people's mental health to a functional baseline.
Mental fitness, though, means much more than living without pain or disability. It is about building strength and improving your well-being. Someone who doesn’t have an ailment may still not be at the level of fitness that they want to be at, and that may impede their goals. Put another way, just because you’re not ill doesn’t mean you can climb Mount Kilimanjaro.
Changing our focus from mental health to mental fitness means asking people about what — and how — they want to be. What are you training your mind for — that is, what is your mountain? The conversation starts with a new definition of mental health that embraces the idea that people can be more or less mentally fit. Everyone’s needs and journey to mental strength and fitness is unique. But with support, everyone can be the best, healthiest version of themselves.
Why is mental fitness necessary, especially in today’s world?
A new style of work is emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic. Although there never was much distinction between “work you” and “home you,” the new hybrid work model will blur the lines even more. It is necessary that we look at ways to help people thrive — both in the workplace and at home.
Taking action to improve mental health helps us weather storms like the current pandemic better. It also enables us to perform better at work. Mental health is another muscle we can strengthen with effort. Strong mental health means you have the skills and people around you to improve and maintain, your well-being.
Resilience is a key component of developing mental fitness. BetterUp found that those with high resilience had higher overall well-being throughout the pandemic — by 6% on average. Not only that, when the resilient took a hit to well-being, the size of the rebound was bigger by 1.2x.
Overall, the mental fitness of the workplace is faltering. Over 50% of employees identify as feeling “stuck.” They are languishing even without clinical mental illness or chronic disease. Languishing is associated with absenteeism and lost productivity. Our research found that employees with the best mental health had 56% fewer missed days for health reasons. They were 5X more likely to be rated a top performer than those struggling with mental health. They also had 25% higher productivity and 34% higher engagement. The costs to U.S. employers are estimated to be as much as $236B.
With personalized support, however, the curve can shift significantly to the right. Of the people who start out “stuck” (low well-being), 77% will significantly improve their well-being within 3-4 months. Poor mental and emotional fitness has a pervasive impact. But developing mental fitness creates positive effects in every area of life.
6 benefits of improved mental fitness:
- Improved cognitive agility. Mental fitness develops better focus, processing speed, memory, concentration, time management, and communication.
- Better conflict resolution. Those that are mentally fit are able to control their reactions and respond in a more rational way. This results in better relationships and higher self-esteem.
- Higher optimism. Mental fitness improves awareness of thought patterns. Developing this meta-cognition leads to more positive feelings and higher self-compassion.
- More confidence. Mentally fit individuals focus on their strengths and opportunities to learn new skills. This builds self-efficacy (your belief in yourself and your ability to accomplish your goals).
- Increased flow. Staying in the moment, coupled with improved creativity, empowers the flow state. More time spent in flow is associated with higher productivity and more energy.
- Better quality sleep. Just like physical fitness, mental fitness contributes to improved sleep quality.
How does mental fitness work?
In order to understand how mental fitness works, it helps to look at a concept in cognitive science called neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to change in response to new experiences.
Our brains carry thoughts along neural pathways. These pathways are like ruts that we create and reinforce over time. You can think of these as your brain’s “habits.” When we repeat a thought pattern many times, that neural pathway gets reinforced. This makes it more likely that you will repeat the pattern in the future.
Sometimes, these thought patterns can make us react in ways that aren't helpful. Instead of reacting to the current situation, we take well-worn pathways to past behaviors. It’s as if you were taking your usual route to work, taking the same exit on autopilot — even when you meant to stop somewhere else.
As you build mental fitness, you'll have the awareness, strength, and agility to identify options. You can choose another route instead of responding automatically. Improving your mental fitness is good for your brain’s neuroplasticity, which benefits our emotions and memory.
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, left unchecked, it can give rise to thoughts and actions that don’t align with our values and our goals.
The good news is that we can reprogram our brains. With the same kind of practice that we use to build muscle, we can create neural pathways that better serve us.
How mental fitness and physical fitness intertwine
Physical fitness is often mentioned alongside mental fitness. That’s because developing the two skill sets share much of the same process. If we want to improve our physical fitness, we have many approaches. We can work alone or with a coach. We can focus on strength, speed, or flexibility. We can go for a walk, or we can play competitive sports. We each have a blend of physical activities that maintain the health and wellness of our body.
No matter which approach we choose, the benefits of physical fitness ripple through all areas of life. The same is true for mental fitness. Over time, and with consistent practice, we develop mental “muscles." Just like we see changes in our physical health, we can become mentally stronger and capable of focused effort. We are less likely to sustain (or cause) emotional and relational injury.
There’s another reason why physical fitness and mental fitness go together. Many studies have found the positive impact of physical exercise on mental health. In fact, so many studies have proved this that one researcher did a meta-meta-analysis.
Physical fitness promotes mental fitness as well. The mood-boosting effects of exercise combined with doing something new is a great way to build cognitive agility. Developing optimal health — whether mental or physical — brings less stress and a sense of achievement.
Get your mind to the gym: how to get mentally fit
How does one develop mental fitness? Just like any other discipline, it takes consistent attention focused on the right areas. With practice, you’ll become more resilient, focused, and optimistic.
Of course, as any personal trainer or dietician will remind you, there’s always a few habits you’ll want to break, too. Here are 7 things to do (and 7 you’ll want to stop doing) to develop mental fitness:
Developing a regular mindfulness practice is the surest way to boost mental fitness. You may choose to meditate, color, practice body awareness, or use an app for support. Just fifteen minutes per day is enough to see significant changes over time.
By practicing mindfulness regularly, you build a heightened awareness of your automatic thoughts. You learn to refocus your attention and disrupt negative thought patterns. This helps you choose behaviors that align with your goals.
Take care of your physical health
For optimal cognitive functioning, your brain needs adequate food, water, and sleep. A lack of any of these essentials can impact your mental fitness and emotional health. Build breaks into your day to take care of these basic needs.
Of course, physical exercise is important to mental fitness as well. Just as mindfulness can relax the muscles of the body, working out relaxes the mind. Exercise relieves stress and tension. It develops a sense of achievement — which is a cornerstone of Martin Seligman’s PERMA model of happiness.
Find ways to be in flow
Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi discovered that flow is one of the best ways to improve mental fitness. Flow, or the state of being engrossed in what you’re doing, is productive and deeply satisfying. In fact, many researchers believe that flow may be the antidote to burnout. Consciously design opportunities for flow into your workplace and your day.
Train your mind
We all have our favorite activities for physical fitness. Why not discover some for mental fitness as well? You can sharpen memory and cognitive function with mental exercises. There are many games, puzzles, and apps that improve cognitive processing ability.
Mindfulness techniques, like body awareness, visualization, and savoring build mental fitness as well. And don’t forget curling up with a good book. Whether for pleasure or to learn something new, reading is great exercise for your brain.
Building new neural pathways takes work. Unfortunately, the automatic thoughts can get away from us if we’re not vigilant. You can help your brain build these new pathways by using external reminders. Try keeping a list of enabling thoughts (new neural pathways) in a visible location, such as on a post-it note. A visual reminder helps reinforce the new thought and makes it easier to change course.
Take on a new challenge
Learning anything new helps maintain your brain’s neuroplasticity. It doesn’t really matter what it is, so pick something that you enjoy. Try a few phrases of a new language, dance lessons, picking up a sport, needlepoint, or learning to code. Your new hobby will help form new neural paths, improve your emotional health, and build self-efficacy. That’s not bad for a newbie.
Cultivating an "attitude of gratitude" helps to shift our thinking toward optimism. Many studies show a positive correlation between optimism and improved health. You can keep a digital or a physical gratitude journal, or just take a moment daily to note what you’re thankful for.
Burn yourself out
Burnout is characterized by exhaustion, reduced efficacy, and disconnection. This means it poses a major threat to mental fitness. Many people think burnout is about overwork, but that’s not the whole picture. It’s not the ones who have too much to do, but the ones that don’t feel connected to why they do it, that are most likely to burn out. Getting clarity on how your work contributes to the bigger picture can protect against burnout.
Try to do everything yourself
If you want to get more physically fit, you can go to the gym and work out by yourself. But working with a personal trainer will get you to your goals faster and more effectively. The same is true for mental fitness. Coaching is the fastest way to build mental strength and resilience. People who work with coaches have clearer insight into their patterns. They reframe their thoughts more readily and have more self-compassion as they work toward their goals.
Shut off new experiences
Learning or doing something new enlivens you. Don’t make the mistake of putting off a new experience because you’re afraid of looking bad or you’re waiting for everything else to fall into place. Your mind is made to learn, and learning something new is intrinsically rewarding. Personal growth is a key component of overall wellness. It can drive engagement and organizational performance, innovation, and agility.
Discount inner work
Neuroscience tells us that people are more creative and effective when they build “whitespace” into their days. At BetterUp, we call this “inner work.” Even if you look like you’re doing “nothing,” inner work isn’t slacking off. It’s mental acts or activities focused on your inner world to achieve a purpose or result. This intentional, reflective downtime is key to building mental fitness.
Neglect emotional health
While mental health is distinct from mental fitness, you can’t build mental fitness without it. Caring for your emotional health is a basic need (like sleep and water) that can’t be overlooked. Use resources, like employer-provided benefits, access to therapy, and time away from work. Self-care supports your emotional health and fills your cup.
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.
Starting right away builds self discipline and silences the inner critic. Procrastination, on the other hand, is a self-reinforcing pattern. Once you put something off, it becomes easier to continue to put it off. Unfinished tasks and lingering goals drain your self-esteem and motivation. The good news is that even a small start is a step in the right direction.
Beat yourself up
As you start your mental fitness training, every day at the “gym” will be different. Some days, you’ll feel tired, unfocused, or be plagued by negative thoughts. Be gentle with yourself as you develop this new set of mental muscles. Try a new activity, a shorter meditation, or even take a nap. The goal is to build self-compassion, resilience, and mental agility — and no one ever did that by beating themselves up.
Mental fitness goes beyond self-care or the absence of mental illness. As our Science Board Advisor Martin Seligman, says, unlocking potential is about going from “functional to fantastic.” The personal journey towards mental fitness isn’t about fixing what’s wrong. It’s about thinking, feeling, and performing at your best. And just like hitting the gym, it takes consistency, coaching, and a supportive community.
BetterUp Staff Writer
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