We have been told from childhood that physical fitness is paramount to leading a healthy and fulfilling life, but what about mental fitness? Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the World Health Organization predicted that depression, not obesity, would be the leading cause of illness and death in our society by 2030. According to the latest information from the Canadian Mental Health Association, 1 in 5 people in Canada will experience mental health issues or mental illness in any given year, and by the age of 40, about 50 percent of Canadians will have or will have had a mental illness—and women are impacted at a higher rate than men. It’s no wonder that mental fitness is becoming the hottest topic, especially for women. Mental fitness, just like physical fitness, builds strength and endurance and helps us learn to face and cope with challenges, which can produce better mental health outcomes.
What Is Mental Fitness?
Just as our physical health requires exercise and strength-building, so does our mental health. Mental fitness means a state of mental and emotional well-being. It is the ability to feel good about yourself, motivate yourself, acknowledge and meet your own needs, and cope with outside stressors. The results of being mentally fit include improved self-awareness, resilience, reduced negativity, stronger capabilities of navigating strong emotions, higher self-worth, and increased likelihood of succeeding in your goals. But mental fitness takes work. It is something that needs to be consciously practiced every day and is built over time.
Here are 10 ways to help you build your mental fitness:
1. Be True To Yourself
Everyone is different, and it is our differences that make us interesting and special. You are an expert on yourself, and you know how to be authentically you. Wear your unique identity and personality like a badge of honour and accept that some people will love you for exactly who you are, while others may not—and that’s ok. Don’t try to change yourself to suit other people’s expectations. Making others happy should make you feel happy too, and if it doesn’t, then you need to listen to your intuition and focus on your own needs, wants, and feelings. Setting boundaries, and sticking to them, is a very simple way to ensure that you are respecting your limits and that others respect them too. Place more value on your identity and self-love than you do on the opinions and demands of others. After all, you can choose whom you allow into your life, but you always have to live with yourself.
2. Identify Your Strengths
It is human nature to focus on our flaws, but we also need to highlight our own strengths. Focusing on what we can do well, helps build confidence. Think about things that you enjoy doing and that you have had success in. Your strengths don’t have to be things you excel at; they can be things that keep you energized and motivated, things that make you feel good, or things that you have improved on over time. Think broadly about what strengths mean—they can be relationships, character traits, personality, or cognitive abilities. If you’re not sure what your strengths are, ask someone close to you to help you identify them. Write your strengths down to make them more concrete. When facing a challenge or task, go to your strengths and see how they might apply to the situation. Focusing on your positive traits and applying things that you can do well will improve your self-worth and help you succeed.
3. Set Realistic Goals
Goal setting is an important part of mental fitness. It gives you something to work towards and look forward to. Your goals don’t need to be lofty; they need to be realistic. Setting specific goals will give you a sense of purpose and achievement, but the goals you set are completely up to you and should consider your needs, strengths, challenges, ability to commit and follow through, and your definition of success. Even if you’re working towards a large goal, it is important to set small, actionable goals that will help you achieve your ultimate objective. Be specific about your goals, figure out how to achieve them (do some research if necessary), make a plan, set a timeline, and make sure to reward yourself for every achievement. When your goals are realistic, you set yourself up for success and as successes pile up, your confidence will grow, and you will be able to increase your goals and success rates. It’s a positive cycle.
4. Learn To Adapt
Life is unpredictable and external factors can affect your mental health. It is important that you don’t get held down by your expectations and plans. Knowing how to adapt can help you move forward quickly and with less disruption or upset to your life. Change is inevitable and the sooner we recognize that it is a normal part of life the quicker we can adapt. Adapting doesn’t simply mean accepting a new circumstance; it means making that circumstance suitable to your needs. That’s where being true to yourself, identifying your strengths, and setting realistic goals will help. With every change or new challenge you face, assess what your new feelings, thoughts, and needs are, go to your list of strengths and see how they can be applied advantageously, and adjust your goals. Fighting against change will only lead to feeling defeated whereas accepting a new situation and adapting to it will build resilience and mental strength.
5. Focus On Things You Can Control
It is easy to feel overwhelmed when things change quickly or don’t go the way you expect. Worrying about and trying to fix things that are beyond your control can lead to increased stress and anxiety. It is counterproductive to mental fitness and can leave you feeling drained, chaotic, and eventually, despondent. Instead, focus on something you can control and work on that. Whether it is an effort you can make to improve a situation, additional resources you can find to help you through, or simply adjusting your own outlook and attitude. Look at every situation and assess where your power lies: Is it applying one of your strengths? Is it adjusting your expectations? Is it adapting to a new circumstance and making it suit your needs? Or is it keeping an open mind, a positive attitude, and seeing where things lead? Reward yourself for not focusing on things that are out of your hands and congratulate yourself on acknowledging and accepting what you can and can’t control.
6. Let Things Go
Many things can weigh on our consciousness and bring us down. When we allow negative experience, feelings, and thoughts to pile up, we often find ourselves unable to move forward. Just like your body releases toxins during exercise, you can purge your mind from toxins by letting things go. This can be a process and requires practice. One way to start letting go of painful or negative thoughts and feelings is to challenge them with positive ones. Write down the issue that you have been holding on to and acknowledge your true feelings about it, then balance out your thoughts with some real and positive things that can take the place of what you’ve just released. If you can, create physical distance between you and the situation that is weighing you down. Allow yourself to walk away or remove yourself from people, activities, or situations that will cause you stress and hurt. Forgive yourself for dwelling on things and allow yourself to talk about things that are lingering in your mind. If you find yourself needing support and guidance in moving on, seek professional help.
7. Keep A Journal
Putting your thoughts and feelings in a journal is a great way to process your emotions, deal with difficult situations, purge yourself of negativity, set goals and celebrate achieving them. You don’t need to be a writer to keep a journal; your journalling is just for you. There are excellent guided journals that offer prompts, journals that deal specifically with trauma or negative self-talk, journals that help you set goals, and journals that help you practice gratitude. You can also get a blank notebook and write anything you want. Your journal doesn’t have to just include writing; you can express yourself through art, or collages, or any other creative outlet. A journal will help you be more present and grounded in your life. It will help you acknowledge your experiences and see what has worked for you and what hasn’t. The best part about a journal is that it is something you can control and make your own. Make journalling a part of your daily routine.
8. Prioritize “Me” Time
We are often last on our list of priorities and that can lead to burnout, which, according to the APA Dictionary of Psychology, is defined as “physical, emotional, or mental exhaustion, accompanied by decreased motivation, lowered performance, and negative attitudes towards oneself and others.” Prioritizing time for yourself is important for achieving balance in your life and avoiding the feelings associated with burnout. This goes back to being true to yourself. Recognize your needs, find hobbies or interests, and make time every day to do something that is just for you—even if it is for a short time. When setting your schedule and goals, make sure to incorporate “me” time, and don’t fill that time with anything else (unless it’s an emergency). It’s not selfish to take time each day to remove yourself from the demands of your life and reconnect with what makes you feel satisfied and grounded. Downtime is as important as productivity and will help re-energize you for the tasks ahead. Sometimes it’s fine to just do nothing. If doing nothing is not your thing, then treat yourself in small ways that are meaningful to you. Above all, pay attention to and satisfy your needs. Hold yourself accountable by assessing the quality and effectiveness of your “me” time every week (you can do this in your journal). If you feel any of the symptoms related to burnout, take a mental health day, and seek professional help.
9. Practice Mindfulness
Mindfulness may be trending, but it isn’t new. It is a basic human ability that connects you to your experiences and feelings. It is a way of making space for yourself to acknowledge where you are, take a breath, pause to think, and connect to your emotions. The more you practice mindfulness the more fit your mind becomes. In fact, research shows that training your brain to be mindful actually remodels the physical structure of your brain. Mindfulness can include a meditation practice, or it can be as simple as slowing down and taking a breath before moving on to your next task. Starting small by taking a few minutes a day to just sit still and focus on your breathing, calm your thoughts, and acknowledge the way your body feels is enough to begin your mindfulness journey. This is a way to exercise your brain and keep you mentally fit. Remember to accept yourself as you are when you are connecting mindfully with your mind and body. Banish judgment, stop planning, and just sit with yourself. Commit to practicing every day, and you will get better and stronger.
10. Seek Support
No matter how in-tune you are with your mind and body or how resilient and authentic you may be, everyone needs support once in a while. Building strong support systems can help push you forward when you hit an obstacle that seems difficult to overcome. A support system can include family or friends, but it can also be a mental health professional, a support group, a chat room, or a well-written self-help book. It is perfectly acceptable to ask for help; in fact, it shows true strength. Communication and having an outlet that is non-judgmental and compassionate will help you stay mentally fit. Humans are social animals, and we rely on each other and crave community. A support system can offer advice, encouragement, validation, and reinforcement, and help motivate you in your practice to be mentally fit. Remember that you are someone’s support system as well, so make sure you pay it forward and give as much as you receive.
Mental health is a crucial part of well-being. In fact, mental health not only affects your behavioural, emotional, and social welfare but also your physical health. Mental health can change over time, and that’s why it’s important to keep mentally fit so you can be prepared and equipped to deal with these changes. When you’re striving for fitness, it’s important to focus on progress, not perfection, and recognize that the work is ongoing. Just like an athlete practices their sport every day in order to stay fit and perform optimally, so should you – use helpful strategies, like the ten provided in this article, regularly to become and stay mentally fit.