All of us have, at one time or another, felt mentally drained or a little off, leading to a lack of motivation to dive into the day or the next project. You may decide to reach for another cup of coffee. Or, you may wonder if you can train for mental fitness like you train your body to become fitter.
After all, if you’ve been hitting the gym regularly, you’ve seen the results: getting more physically fit helps increase your body’s resilience. So, wouldn’t training the mind for mental fitness benefit the brain as much as hitting the gym helps the body?
The answer is absolutely yes! Taking time to train for mental fitness helps keep the brain in shape. Just as a healthy body helps decrease the risk of heart disease or diabetes and enables you to maintain independence as you get older, training your brain can keep your mind flexible and learning far into the future. It can also improve memory, focus, brain speed, navigation, intelligence, and more.
Furthermore, mastering your mind can not only help you think more clearly, it can help enhance your emotional health and boost your people skills.
Mastering the Mind-Body Connection
A strong, healthy body is deeply intertwined with a strong, healthy mind. Indeed, moving your body more through regular exercise and staying active during the day increases oxygen flow and releases endorphins, so you think and feel better. That’s why people who tend to be in better shape physically also tend to demonstrate greater mental agility.
Even a brisk walk outside can help boost your outlook on life and provide greater resilience to both mental and physical stress. In addition, exercising the mind has been shown to help improve intelligence, promote reasoning, and boost problem-solving abilities. On the other hand, sitting quietly in meditation can also calm the mind and boost mood.
Strong mental fitness has also been shown to help you relax and go to sleep, even after a long, stressful day. Yet, just as it takes time and effort to build your body, it also takes time, practice, and consistency to train your mind. Fortunately, no matter how young or old you are, how healthy you are, or where you’re starting, you can improve your mental fitness. Your mind is like a muscle. It needs to flex to get stronger!
8 Ways to Train for Mental Fitness
Not only can exercise increase blood flow, oxygen, and endorphins, but it’s actually been shown to slow cognitive decline and reduce memory loss in people as they age.1
It’s also been shown to lift mood by increasing dopamine and the expression of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), so people who exercise tend to be happier, have a greater sense of well-being, and are more resilient.
In addition, research has found that exercise may even prevent the brain from shrinking as you age. 2 It also helps the brain form new cells. One study found that men who exercised and practiced other healthy behaviors (e.g., no smoking, maintaining a healthy weight, eating more fruits and veggies, and limiting alcohol intake) were up to 60% less likely to suffer from cognitive impairment as they got older. 3
What’s the best type of exercise for the brain? Aerobic exercise is great for improving cognitive abilities. Resistance training is best for improving memory and executive function. So, do both, aiming for 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise and at least 2 days of resistance training per week.
After a long, hard day, you may just want to collapse into a deep sleep. Sometimes, though, the body will be ready, but the mind continues to be wound up. Visualization can be a tool that helps you relax and become more peaceful, release tension from the brain and body, and let go of your worries from the day. 4
To get started, close your eyes and imagine you’re in a still canoe on a motionless pond with the clear, blue sky above you. Or imagine gently swinging side to side in a comfortable hammock, watching fall leaves drop.
Meditation calms the mood and emotions, reduces stress, and increases focus, concentration, and the ability to overcome distractions. Research even suggests mediation can increase the amount of gray matter in the brain in those with long-term practices. 5 Mindfulness is often praised for its wide breadth of benefits. 6
4) Don’t Believe Everything You Think
Thoughts aren’t always true or helpful, and we shouldn’t just accept whatever comes into our minds. Beliefs, our past, and feelings about a situation or surroundings are filters that can alter how we interpret and experience the world around us. Problems can arise if we don’t realize that we’re seeing through personal filters, which may have accumulated a layer of fear, negativity, low self-esteem, or suffering through the years.
Our thoughts can spiral “out of control” if we’re worried, angry, nervous, stressed, or disappointed. Thoughts can swirl around what-ifs, criticisms, and ruminations, causing us to dwell on problems or overanalyze situations, conversations, and past events. The longer we focus on the negative thoughts, feelings, fears, and regrets, the more anxious the thoughts can become. Ultimately, we feel too exhausted to think or too distracted to focus on what’s really important, and we just want to escape.
When things seem especially gloomy, see if you can remove your filters and see the situation through a different, more positive lens. For example, think of a time when you saw something for the first time, or when falling in love and everything seemed to sparkle. Then, question your thoughts and feelings and perhaps reframe them to see if things don’t look just a little different. 7, 8
Learning to reframe your thoughts and become more mindful may help with addiction, anxiety, pain, depression, eating disorders, insomnia, PTSD, stress, and more. It can also help improve self-esteem, help with dealing with grief or loss, improve relationships, and help you view the world and events more positively.
If you find yourself focused on negative thoughts, gently and lovingly invite yourself back to the present moment, what you can be grateful for, and engage in the right here, right now. One of the best ways to do so is to focus on your senses. What do you hear, see, smell, taste, or physically feel?
5) Play Games
As children, we hopefully discovered the best way to learn is through play. That remains true even as we age. Challenging the brain while playing has been shown to improve memory, reaction speed, attention span, and task-switching. You can choose solo games like sudoku, crosswords, mazes, brainteasers, and other puzzles. Better yet, gather with friends, family, or others and have fun as you strengthen your logic, word and math skills, visuospatial skills, ability to learn new tasks, and more with board or even video games! 9 – 11
It doesn’t take a lot of time. There’s no need to spend hours and hours trying to beat the current level. Instead, take 15 minutes or so for a quick game by yourself. Or, if you’re having fun with friends, spend even more time.
Why spend more time playing games when you’re with friends? Because studies also show that being socially active decreases the risk of developing dementia as it activates numerous areas of the brain. 12 Playing sports or exercising together is another way to build the mind and body simultaneously.
Even if you’re a hardcore introvert, social interactions still benefit the brain. Start with close friends or family members and keep in close contact. And, if you’re up for it, you can expand your circle by signing up to volunteer in your community, joining a club or game night, signing up for a walking group or class fitness, etc.
Go beyond scrolling through social media and pick up books to learn interesting information, discover crazy or inspiring characters, or see the world through someone else’s eyes. Don’t limit yourself to just one genre or a handful of authors. Explore a wider range of topics from historical fiction to nonfiction, contemporary classics, and modern novels. You’ll soon discover more about other people, cultures, foods, and more, all while building a more robust vocabulary. Plus, you’ll have more interesting subjects to discuss.
Reading has also been found to increase compassion, improve conversation skills, help slow cognitive decline, improve critical thinking, reduce stress, and even help people live longer. 13 – 18 And reading a good old-fashioned book has been shown to offer more calmness and escape than other forms of reading while expanding your knowledge and helping you better understand the world and perhaps even yourself.
Researchers have also found that readers have better sleep patterns, especially those who read right before going to sleep. 19
8) Embrace Downtime
With all of the powerful benefits of getting enough sleep, it’s hard to believe that rest, relaxation, and getting to bed at a reasonable time are still stigmatized to the point where many of us feel lazy if we don’t burn the candle at both ends. Yet getting enough rest not only increases focus, creativity, and energy, it makes us more productive and efficient, so we get more done in less time.
It’s vital to give your brain and body some downtime. That can include reading a book or taking a stroll, and it absolutely includes getting enough sleep! The amount of sleep we get impacts memory, learning, attention, problem-solving, mood, behavior, the immune system, metabolism, digestion, hormone levels, aging, and more. 20 – 22 Sleep allows our bodies and brains to recover and repair so we can be our best selves.
The Benefits of Training for Mental Fitness
Being more fit mentally doesn’t just benefit us, it helps the people around us as it promotes:
- Being mindful and present in the moment to better listen and retain information. This, in turn, can help us enjoy life and our relationships with others to a greater extent.
- Our ability to respond rather than react as we have greater control over our thoughts and can choose to be more positive and rational.
- Greater cognitive functioning, including focus, processing speed, memory, and concentration. It also has positive effects on communication as well as time management to help us improve personal and work relationships.
- Confidence and optimism, so we’re able to notice and reframe our thoughts more positively as well as more compassionately. Plus, because we’re more optimistic, we have greater self-esteem and belief in our strengths and abilities, leading to improved self-compassion.
Whether you’re talking about the mind or the body, the adage “use it or lose it” is true. Exercise for the body and training for mental fitness go hand in hand to optimize your health and your life. And training your brain as well as your body makes you more resilient, so you’re better able to bounce back from setbacks, obstacles, or even failures.
Add mental training throughout the day. Perhaps exercise briskly in the morning before work. Take a stroll right after lunch. Play a quick game after dinner. And then read a good book before drifting off into dreamland. A good, healthy, mostly whole-food diet can also feed the brain to help it function optimally.