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.