If you want to improve your physical health, part of what you do is engage in physical workouts. This might be weight training or running or playing sport or gardening or yoga. Basically something that tests and improves some domain of physical functioning: endurance, cardiovascular health, flexibility, strength, speed etc.
Do it regularly and increase the difficulty gradually over time and your physical fitness increases as does your physical health.
What about if you want to improve your mental health? Is there such a thing as a mental fitness workout?
I think there is. As a psychologist I recommend a range of exercises for the mind that if done regularly can help someone improve their mental fitness and mental health.
I’ve become a little bit obsessive in the last year or so, collecting and categorising such exercises/ activities.
The problem is there are hundreds of activities or exercises that likely promote psychological growth of some sort. So in addition to noting the variety of exercises, I’ve also tried to organise them into coherent categories.
In this post I summarise 13 types of mental fitness workout (13 is a lucky number). I am not sure if this categorisation is sound, or whether I will continue to organise them in this way, but for the time being, the categorisations help to showcase the diversity of activities available but in a manageable way.
For each I’ve tried to provide an example of a workout of that type – something to get you started on adding such workouts to your life.
Reflection exercises involve analysing our experiences to gain insights about who we are as a person. The goal is to gain a level of self-understanding that helps us interact in the world more effectively. An example would be journaling, in which we dissect the events of the day/week and try to refine our understanding of ourselves and the people and situations we encounter. Another example is psychotherapy where we revisit the past to understand its impact on who we are today.
One to do right now: visit https://www.viacharacter.org/ and complete the free strengths survey to get a feel for your strengths and values and think about how you can use these in a way to enhance your quality of life. 🤔
Future orientation (FO)
FO exercises involve looking into the future and crafting a vision of who we want to be, the life we want to lead, the things we want to achieve. They are about setting destinations or milestones that we want to achieve. Examples include simple goal setting, as well as ideal life/ideal self type written exercises or future authoring.
One to do right now: Visit https://ggia.berkeley.edu/practice/best_possible_self and try the exercise described. It involves imagining the future and the best possible version of yourself and your life. 👩💻
People exercises focus on our interactions with others with the goal of creating and sustaining a robust social support network and building a sense of belonging and safety, not just for ourselves, but also for the ones we love. Examples include simple interaction and relationship building exercises like active listening to inner exercises like cultivating a sense of gratitude and compassion towards others.
One to do right now: Send a close friend or family member a text/email/message letting them know how much you appreciate having them in your life and why. 💑
We encounter problems (small and large) everyday. Our ‘solutions’ to those problems don’t always involve well thought out or planned responses. Problem solving exercises get us to step out the process of defining a problem, generating and ranking solutions and implementing and evaluating the outcomes of our chosen solution. Decision making frameworks would also fit into this category.
One to do right now: Read this article – https://effectiviology.com/how-to-make-decisions/ – and use the steps and ideas within to tackle a difficult decision you’ve been avoiding making. 😕
For a while there, ‘brain training’ exercises were heralded as the ultimate fix for issues of memory, attention and cognitive decline. Whilst those claims have not been realised, there is definitely value in having cognitively stimulating activities as part of your day/ week. This can be as simple as reading or doing crosswords, through to learning a new language or an instrument. Such activities help us keep our cognitive muscles limber – memory, attention, planning, problem solving.
One to do right now: get the Duolingo app and have a go at learning a new language – https://www.duolingo.com/ 📚
If we keep doing the same things, we get the same results. Part of strengthening your mind is incrementally and gradually exposing yourself to new things, new places, new people, new ideas. Exercises that push you out of your comfort zone, or get you to confront your fears fall into this category.
One to do right now: Although admittedly I have not done this exercise, I do like the concept behind Tim Ferris’ Fear Setting as an alternative to goal setting – https://tim.blog/2017/05/15/fear-setting/ 🧪
Popular these days are exercises and activities that cultivate present moment awareness. Mindfulness meditation is a good example. And there are good reasons for this. Cultivating a sense of non-judgemental present moment awareness can be a good antidote to difficult feelings, disconnected relationships and work avoidance. Such exercises also tend to improve our capacity to focus our attention which is a much needed skill in an environment of multiple competing distractions.
One to do right now: Grab an app like Smiling Mind and dedicate a couple of weeks to trying a brief meditation each day – https://www.smilingmind.com.au/ 🎯
Connection with place
Indigenous wellbeing models emphasise a strong connection to place, but unfortunately this isn’t as strong in western psychological models. Connection with place can start with simple exercises involving time in nature or tidying and organising our living spaces. Over time, this can develop into a deeper connection with the earth on which we live and the other ‘earthlings’ that inhabit this planet with us.
One to do right now: commit to having your lunch outside each day for a week, and take the time to really notice the trees, sky, weather, animals and the rhythm of nature. 🌲
Connection with spirit
It is easy to become wrapped up in the minutiae of one’s life and lose sight of the bigger picture. Spirit exercises are focused on cultivating a sense of connection with a force, source of meaning, or power bigger than any given individual but which links us all. Many religious and spiritual practices fall into this category but it can also include the non-secular process of seeking or building meaning and purpose in one’s life.
One to do right now: try this lecture – https://education.unimelb.edu.au/news-and-events/events/2019/dls/meaning-and-purpose-in-life-what-is-it,-why-should-i-care-and-how-can-i-get-some 🙏
Learning & education
An obvious but not unimportant path to strengthening our minds is the time spent in formal (e.g. school) and informal (e.g. reading) education. Education expands our knowledge, our skills and our capacity to entertain different perspectives and be more flexible in our thinking. Learning comes in many forms, so this category includes more traditional schooling and teaching but also things like mentoring and online learning.
One to do right now: you are already doing it, it is your degree 😊
Just the run-of-the-mill thinking we do on a daily basis isn’t the focus here, but instead the ‘thinking about thinking’ (meta-cognition) that is done in many different types of psychotherapy (e.g CBT, ACT). Meta cognitive activities seek to help us develop an understanding and awareness of our own unique thinking patterns (helpful and unhelpful) and make adjustments accordingly. For example, individuals prone to high levels of self-criticism might be encouraged to regularly practice self-compassion exercises.
One to do right now: learn more about Thinking Traps and try to identify times when you’ve fallen into these traps – https://www.mindsethealth.com/matter/thinking-traps-cognitive-distortions 🧠
Whilst we speak of mind and body as separate things, they aren’t. What perhaps people aren’t aware of however is just how much control they can learn to wield over their emotional life through physical mechanisms. The most powerful of those are sleep and breathing. We have the capacity to modify multiple aspects of conscious experience through better sleep and manipulation of breathing. Huberman’s (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC2D2CMWXMOVWx7giW1n3LIg) work on visual and breathing pathways into autonomic nervous system modification fall into this category.
One to do right now: Book in to do Maureen’s Mindful Yoga class – https://oasis.flinders.edu.au/mindful-yoga-class/ 🧘♀️
Habits and routines
With pretty much all of the activities above, the ultimate goal is the development of mentally healthy habits and routines, both in terms of the things we do but also the way we think. Most of these exercises exert their medium to long-term positive impacts on our mental health through repetition and becoming part of our daily lives. But developing habits and routines is in itself a skillset we can improve. In addition to the mental fitness focused activities above, knowledge about habits and routines can be used to modify many of our behaviours: work, exercise, sleep, diet and more.
One to do right now: read Tiny Habits by BJ Fogg- https://tinyhabits.com/ 📆
The idea of physical workouts to improve physical fitness is socially accepted and endorsed.
My hope is that one day that all of us have a similar level of knowledge and acceptance about workouts for the mind.
Although the science on what those workouts are is relatively young and ever-evolving, we already know quite a bit about activities or exercises that help improve psychological health. In this blog post, I’ve tried to capture the diversity of what we know already, in a brief plain-language form and provide some ‘workouts’ you could start doing straight away.
If you’d like to learn more and try some of these exercises in a group format, I have some mental fitness workshops coming up in March.