If you want a body that’s toned, fit and healthy, you’re going to have to hit the gym. It’s not rocket science: we all know that lifting weights builds muscle and jogging improves cardiovascular health. What many of us don’t realize, however, is that similar principles apply when it comes to our brains. In this article, we discuss the idea of mental fitness and what you can do to keep your brain in tip-top condition.
What is Mental Fitness?
Quite simply, mental fitness involves taking steps to improve your psychological functioning. We’re not talking about becoming a genius or performing superhuman intellectual feats – although research does show that it’s possible to strengthen your memory and boost a cognitive capacity known as fluid intelligence. Rather, mental fitness involves simple tasks that you can perform each day to optimize your mental and emotional wellbeing. Read on to learn more.
The 5 Parts of Mental Fitness
In the gym, there are various activities that can be used to improve parts of your physical fitness – from cardio to upper body and leg strength, for example. Similarly, mental fitness is made up of various attributes that can be reinforced using different techniques. Below, we discuss five strategies that you can use to increase aspects of your mental fitness.
Visualizing (Or Daydreaming)
Visualization makes use of mental imagery, or daydreams, to improve your mental fitness. You might, for example, visualize yourself achieving a personal or career-related goal. Alternatively, you may imagine yourself taking the steps that you need to get where you want to be in life. Such forms of visualization have been shown to stimulate brain networks that are involved in motivation and goal-directed behavior.
On the other hand, visualization can also calm you down when you’re feeling stressed, thereby improving your focus and creativity. People usually accomplish this by visualizing themselves in a physical environment (real or imaginary) that feels safe and nurturing.
Mindfulness is a form of Buddhist meditation. This technique requires you to focus on the present while accepting your moment-to-moment experience without judgement. Mindfulness represents a simple technique that you can implement at any point of your daily routine.
For example, you may choose to engage in mindful eating, where you focus on the flavors, smells and physical sensations that arise during a meal. Alternatively, you could choose to practice mindfulness while showering or brushing your teeth, paying close attention to your sensory experiences while bringing your focus back to the task at hand every time you notice that your mind is wandering. Some people even use mindfulness to take advantage of the time that they spend performing a daily commute.
Optimism or Hopefulness
The way that we interpret the world influences how we experience life. Optimism and hopefulness are lenses that we can use to view ourselves and the world in a healthier way. Contrary to what some think, this doesn’t mean ignoring the negatives. Rather, optimism and hopefulness involve making a deliberate attempt to view the world more realistically by making sure that we’re also paying enough attention to the positives.
For example, cultivating optimism is about learning to acknowledge your own strengths and recognizing that when things go wrong it’s not all your fault. Hopefulness means realizing that the challenges you face will not last forever and acknowledging that adversity builds resilience. Additionally, optimistic and hopeful people differentiate between situations that they can influence and those that are out of their control. An important aspect of mental fitness involves accepting situations that cannot be changed.
Relaxation and Good Sleep
When it comes to relaxation, different strokes work for different folks. You might find, for example, that spending time in nature, doing some light cardio or listening to relaxing music does the trick. Alternatively, deep breathing and progressive muscular relaxation (where you gradually relax tension throughout all your muscle groups) are popular techniques used by psychologists to promote relaxation. These sorts of exercises help to reduce stress and anxiety, thereby improving your physical, cognitive and emotional health.
Practicing relaxation has the added benefit of helping you sleep better. Healthy sleep is a vital habit for promoting mental fitness. Research has shown, for example, that sleep allows waste products to be cleared from the brain at night. It’s also during sleep that our brains create new neural networks and move the information that we have learnt during the day into our long term memory.
With recent developments in brain imaging technology, we now know that the brain-body connection is incredibly powerful. Physical activity goes a long way in promoting mental fitness – not just physical health. For example, research shows that exercise can boost your cognitive functioning, increase your energy and improve your self-esteem.
Exercise also provides mood-boosting endorphins and reduced levels of cortisol – a stress hormone that can negatively affect your health in many ways. Importantly, you don’t need to be running marathons to see the benefits. Evidence suggests that even a simple daily stroll can be enough to promote mental fitness by boosting your creativity, concentration and memory.
The Benefits of Mental Fitness
The benefits of the mental fitness techniques that we have discussed today are broad. You can apply these skills selectively to reap the specific benefits that you require. For example, research shows that thinking optimistically can increase your overall physical and mental wellbeing. Mindfulness, on the other hand, can help you manage stress and combat mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety.
We’ve also discussed how visualization can improve motivation and mental focus; and how keeping physically active can promote mental health by strengthening the brain-body connection. Finally, relaxation techniques can reduce stress and improve your sleep quality, which can go a long way in fostering basic brain health.
Train Your Brain for Mental Fitness
One of modern neuroscience’s most exciting findings is that our brains are neuroplastic, meaning that they can change. The way that we think and behave can strengthen or weaken specific neural pathways. This means that we can influence the structure and functioning of our brains to maximize our emotional and mental wellbeing.
Of course, this is sometimes easier said than done; and brain changes don’t happen overnight. Neuroscientists agree that practice is the key to success when it comes to mental fitness. By incorporating the above-mentioned skills into your daily routine, you can start building the brain that you want today.
Haley Neidich, LCSW has her masters degree from Columbia University and is licensed psychotherapist who has been in the mental health field for over 10 years. Haley is the Director of Clinical Development for ThriveTalk.com an online therapy company that instantly connects you with highly trained and empathic therapists who help you to craft a plan for powerful change in your life.
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