Mental fitness is just as important as physical fitness, and being agile in our minds is crucial to both our careers and our relationships, writes Danielle Barron
What is fitness? It is something of an all- encompassing term, one with a plethora of different definitions. Personally, it comes down to what a Nazi- esque spinning class instructor said to a purple- faced me some years ago – “fitness is the ability to recover quickly”. Despite being about to fall off the bike, this succinct explanation stuck with me.
But what about mental fitness? This term is becoming increasingly popular as the underlying biological links between physical and mental health are more clearly understood. When we are winded by a major life event, being able to recover quickly requires significant mental strength and psychological resilience. But how do we achieve mental fitness, and can we avoid losing it?
Dr Mark Rowe is a GP and expert on wellbeing wisdom and holistic leadership. Author of the bestselling book A Prescription for Happiness, he asserts that mental health is not separate from overall health and wellbeing; rather it’s a key interconnected component.
“As far back as 1948, the World Health Organisation ( WHO) defined health as more than the absence of disease but a state of complete physical, mental and relational wellbeing.” This means that, just like our bodies, our brains will benefit from regular training, says Rowe.
“We can train our brains to do just about anything – we have that facility. I like to use the term ‘ psychological fitness’ to remind us that, just as with our physical fitness, we can train our brains to better meet the needs of our lives.”
It isn’t just all in our heads – the brain is remarkably plastic, meaning it is capable of change and development. “With neuroplasticity, we can grow and develop new brain cells. Your brain can rewire and remould throughout your lifetime.”
So what’s the mental fitness equivalent of a couch potato?
Rowe says there are a number of reasons as to why someone might lose mental fitness; some of these we have control over, while others are completely out of our hands. It can be affected by lifestyle factors, such as lack of quality sleep, alcohol consumption, poor diet, insufficient exercise and/ or a sedentary lifestyle. Our obsession with technology also doesn’t help – constantly checking our phone, email, and social media is behaviour Rowe describes as “toxic” to our mental health.
Unsurprisingly, trying or stressful times can be the ultimate test of mental fitness. “Major interpersonal stress, such as a serious illness in oneself or a close family member, unemployment, bereavement, or the loss of a key relationship, can also impact our psychological resilience.”
Rowe is therefore a strong advocate of being “proactive” when it comes to psychological health.
“If there is one thing that we can be sure of in life, it’s that the next challenge is always around the corner. On top of this, we all inhabit a highly mediated world in which we are bombarded with vast amounts of information, much of which can be disconcerting. We rely on our psychological health to help us process and manage these complexities, and to do so in such a way that allows us to continue to take care of ourselves and our loved ones regardless of what life throws at us.”
George Bernard Shaw said “those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything”, and according to Rowe, we naturally lose mental fitness as we age, and keeping an open mind is essential for maintaining it.
“It is an unfortunate reality of life that many people, as they get older, tend to become entrenched in their ideas and beliefs. It is hugely beneficial for our psychological health to maintain a spirit of openness and curiosity to the world around us. This openness to learning, translates into a greater ability to forgive, and to a greater ability to let go of, and move on from, difficult periods in your life. Education [ can] improve your psychological health, increase your potential for happiness, and provide you with the tools to transform your life.”
For many of us, the source of much of our day- to- day stress is in our jobs. A 2015 survey by international human resources