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Erin Eatough PhD

BetterUp

Manager. Behavioural Science

Read more about Erin Eatough PhD

What is mental fitness? Learn how to exercise your brain

Erin Eatough shares a quick overview on the difference between mental fitness and mental health and how to build your mental muscles.
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Mental fitness doesn’t exactly involve lifting weights, but it is about achieving a strong capacity for wellbeing – cultivating awareness of how we feel, think, and act. 

Mental fitness can be defined as having the skills and practises to improve and sustain your state of wellbeing and perform at your best. It involves developing core psychological resources and becoming aware of how you think, behave, and feel. 

What mental fitness feels like

When you’re mentally fit, you spend more of your time feeling: 

  • Present and connected to those around you
  • Well-rested and enthusiastic
  • Energised, 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.

Mental fitness and mental health

There’s a tendency to define mental health by what it’s not. 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.

Changing our focus from mental health to mental fitness means asking people about what – and how – they want to be. The conversation starts with a new definition of mental health that embraces the idea that people can be mentally fit.

Overall, the mental fitness of the workplace is faltering. BetterUp found that over 50% of employees identify as feeling “stuck.” They are suffering even without clinical mental illness or chronic disease. 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.

But with personalised support, 77% of people will significantly improve their wellbeing within three to four months. Poor mental and emotional fitness has a pervasive impact. But developing mental fitness creates positive effects in every area of life. 

The six benefits of 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 can control their reactions and respond more rationally. 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.

A mental fitness to-do list

Practice mindfulness

Developing a regular mindfulness practice is the surest way to boost mental fitness. You may choose to meditate, colour, practice body awareness, or use an app for support. Just 15 minutes per day is enough to see significant changes over time. 

By practising 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 behaviours 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.

Don’t forget curling up with a good book.

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. 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 favourite 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, visualisation, and savouring 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 a great exercise for your brain.

Pick something that you enjoy

Use reminders

Building new neural pathways takes work. Unfortunately, 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 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.

Practice gratitude

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.

Caring for your emotional health is a basic need

Know your limits – avoid burnout

Burnout is characterised 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.

Get help from professionals

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 a clearer insight into their patterns. They reframe their thoughts more readily and have more self-compassion as they work toward their goals.

Be open to 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 organisational performance, innovation, and agility.

Be gentle with yourself

Take ‘inner work’ seriously 

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. 

Watch your 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.

Build self-compassion, resilience, and mental agility – and no one ever did that by beating themselves up.

Avoid procrastination

With any kind of practice, regularity and consistency are crucial to building 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.

Be kind to yourself

As you start your mental fitness training, every day at the “gym” will be different. Some days, you’ll feel tired, unfocused, or 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.

Watch the BetterUp demo to find out more.

Author Profile Picture
Erin Eatough PhD

Manager. Behavioural Science

Read more from Erin Eatough PhD
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