Welcome to Lesson 7 of my Introduction to Mental Fitness course.
It seems strange to be 7 lessons into this course before actually addressing the question “what is mental fitness?”
But I have been on a bit of a tangential journey, exploring the concept of self-improvement and the things that motivate us to become better versions of ourselves.
Hopefully this will start to make more sense as we delve into the definition of mental fitness.
What is mental fitness?
I have two answers to this question.
The first is a relatively simple analogy to physical fitness.
Physical fitness is your ability to cope with and meet the physical demands of life without undue fatigue or damage to your body. This includes the basic necessary physical tasks of everyday living (e.g. bathing/showering, personal hygiene, dressing, geting around, lifting stuff, feeding yourself) but also the voluntary involvement in sports and other more physically demanding activities (e.g. gardening).
Physical fitness is built through a combination of exercise, rest and nutrition. Exercise pushes your body to the edge of its capabilities, which causes a controlled level of stress. Rest and nutrition then help the body heal and get stronger and more capable. This combination over time (i.e. exercise as a habit) builds physical fitness. We now know a lot about the types of activities that build different aspects of physical fitness. For example, weight training increases muscular strength, bone density and fat-burning. Swimming improves heart and lung capacity and endurance.
How much effort you put into building physical fitness relates to the discrepancy between how physically capable and healthy you are now, and how physically capable and healthy you need to be to achieve your goals. For example, the amount of exercise I need to do to feel strong and healthy in my low physical demands life is much less than someone training to play competitive sports.
Mental fitness is your ability to cope with and meet the psychological demands of life, without undue fatigue or damage to your mind or body. This includes the basic necessary psychological tasks of everyday living (e.g. planning/organising, managing emotions, dealing with people, communicating, reading/writing/remembering, navigating, managing impulses) but also the more robust psychological demands of high performance settings like university (e.g advanced learning/studying, examinations, competition).
Mental fitness is built through engaging in activities that help you acquire new knowledge and skills and push you to establish new ways of thinking and behaving. These help you engage more successfully and happily in the world and with other people. We now know a lot about the different activities individuals can engage in that help them build mental fitness. For example, meditation can be used as way to better understand and alter emotional reactions. Regular reading can be used to better understand the perspectives of other people.
How much effort you put into building mental fitness relates to the discrepancy between how mentally healthy and capable you feel now, and how mentally healthy/capable you need to be to achieve your goals. For example, someone struggling with mental ill health might put more effort into building mental fitness than someone who feels pretty happy with their life. I think tertiary students, who are attempting to learn new stuff rapidly so they can transition to a new stage in life need to take their mental fitness quite seriously.
Interestingly, the core things that you do to build physical fitness (regular exercise, restful sleep, good nutrition) are also key activities that help build mental fitness. Concentration, alertness, capacity to learn, mood and memory all benefit from regular exercise, sleep and good nutrition. So a decision to work on your physical fitness is likely to positively impact your mental fitness and vice versa.
My second answer to this question is a little more abstract but perhaps better illustrates why I am so gung-ho about this topic.
Mental fitness is a personal framework for understanding what we can do, as individuals, to build a happier and more productive life.
Underpinning that framework is an assumption that we are all, regardless of race, gender, age, religion are attempting to move forward in our own lives. What ‘moving forward’ is to each of us and what drives us to move forward can differ, but I believe we share the inherent drive to become a better version of ourselves.
I see that everyday here at University. Students (and staff) pushing themselves to be better at their topics. Students pushing themselves to prepare for their next stage of life. Academics pushing themselves to do better science and solve bigger problems. Teachers pushing themselves to make their topics more engaging and useful.
The question is then ‘how to do that?“, especially when the rest of life is so psychologically demanding. Most people feel like they are being pulled in too many directions at the same time.
This question started me on a quest that has led to this concept of mental fitness. As I discover, categorise and organise the many activities that can give rise to improved mental health and performance, I get a glimpse into some of the core ingredients of a life guided by self-betterment.
I see that making lasting positive changes in our lives involves developing new habits and new ways of thinking. To change our emotional experience of the world we have to make changes in how we live our lives, in the same way that someone who wants to lose weight or get fit has to adopt new healthy habits of exercise and good nutrition.
I see that changing our habits can be challenging, but is possible. I see that the fields of philsosphy and medicine and psychology and theology have already provided lots of useful information about why and how to make such changes. Whilst we don’t have the perfect recipe for the perfect life (i’m sure it doesn’t exist) we do have a collective body of research, philosophy and stories/narratives that provide useful and important guidance.
Making powerful changes in our lives isn’t always easy or obvious. Building mental fitness isn’t always easy or obvious. So it seems sensible that I tackle this topic. Not only to inform my own life, but to hopefully provide some guidance to everyone else who is also trying to improve their life.
As I better understand the concept of mental fitness, I will be sharing it with you in these lessons.
We’ll cover a lot of territory with each other, slowly building the knowledge and skills we need to make meaningful changes and improvements to our lives.
In this lesson I’ve tried to give you a simple introduction to the concept of mental fitness. Whether you view it as the mental equivalent of physical fitness or as a framework for understanding how to live a happier and more productive life, the implications are the same. We are going to try to work out what changes to make to our lives in order to achieve the goals we want to achieve and become the people we want to be.
In the next lesson I explore the different components you need to get in place in order to build mental fitness……
Have you ever considered training your mind in the same way that you might train your body? Are there already activities that you engage in (outside of your studies) that you think have a positive impact on your ability to think or your mood?
Nothing to do this week 🙂 Enjoy a cool or warm beverage and relax.