A Shift in Thinking: Focusing on Mental Fitness

A Shift in Thinking: Focusing on Mental Fitness, by Jamie Hansen

Spring is here, and May is upon us! I’ve believed for a long time that this month gives December a run for its money in terms of manic demands and hectic family schedules. Thankfully, the days are growing longer, the air warmer, and the grass and trees greener, while the entries on the calendar are experiencing their own kind of exponential growth.

You may be aware that May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and bonus points if you’re also aware that it’s Global Employee Health and Fitness Month. These two topics are near and dear to my heart and their intersection has been on my mind of late. 

To delve a little deeper, Mental Health Awareness Month has been recognized for over 20 years by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA) to provide education and reduce stigmas around mental illness and to highlight the effectiveness of treatment and celebrate recovery from mental illness. This is a very important initiative as the National Institute of Mental Illness estimates that one in five Americans live with a mental illness (NAMI 2021). This underscores the ongoing need to provide destigmatizing resources that could literally save lives, similar to information on physical health conditions. 

On the other hand, Global Employee Health and Fitness Month was created “to promote the benefits of a healthy lifestyle to employers and their employees through worksite health promotion activities,” (GEHFM.org). This initiative focuses on proactive, healthy habits in the workplace, and from more of a physical health perspective. Which brings us to our intersection, and my question:  

What if we focused on proactive mental health habits, or fitness, that supported our overall mental well-being? What benefits could we realize if we recognized and celebrated regular mental health-supporting activities, similar to those for physical health such as working out, eating our fruits and veggies, and less salt, fats, and sugar, and drinking plenty of water?

It’s in this vein I’m raising the flag for “Mental Fitness” and offer five healthy habits to consider, along with their corollaries for physical health:

  1. Movement – Just like our muscles need physical activity, our brains benefit from stimulating exercises as well. Games like sudoku, solitaire, crossword puzzles, and even Wordle are more than ways to pass the time on planes or in waiting rooms. These games promote sharp thinking, problem-solving, and keep our brains active in a variety of thinking patterns to keep those neurons flexible and firing.
  2. Water – Our physical bodies need regular hydration in order to perform effectively and ward off illnesses. Likewise, our minds thirst for a regular flow of stimuli that is positive, energizing, and life-giving. We are certainly exposed to problems and negative situations that may require our focus for a day, a week, or even a season, and a regular flow of mental matter that fills us back up can help prevent burnout and psychological over-exertion, especially during challenging periods. The good news is this mental hydration can come from a number of sources – supportive relationships, volunteer/serving experiences, faith/spiritual activities, good reads, time outdoors, etc.
  3. Sleep – Just like our physical bodies need rest and the recharge that comes from sleeping, our brains benefit greatly from built-in recovery time as well. Consider taking a 15-minute break every 90 minutes from demanding mental tasks (work, budgeting, taxes, paying bills, etc), or every 45 minutes from activities that have an emotionally heavy component to them as well. After a brief break, you’re much more likely to return to your work energized and will more than compensate for the break time with the resulting uptick in your productivity.
  4. Stretching – Another good habit in relation to physical activity as it provides our muscles with flexibility and strength for the task ahead. In the realm of mental activity, there’s a common habit that actually robs our minds of flexibility and strength the longer we engage in it, and that’s the thief of multitasking. Study after study shows that our brains do not do this well, and yet the temptation remains strong with all of the stimuli we are exposed to regularly. The best antidote is to schedule a shorter, focused time with minimal distractions to devote to a task. Put the phone away. Close the door. Turn off the TV or radio until a later time when you can give that your full attention as well.
  5. Nutrition – Last but certainly not least is the fuel we put into our physical bodies, and the consideration isn’t so different for our mental fitness. Ideally, we’re getting a good share of mental fuel that boosts our work and life – things like field-specific continuing education, or technical and/or professional development at work. Additionally, learning how to play an instrument like guitar, learning a foreign language, or developing a new hobby make for great mental fuel in our personal lives. And much like junk food, we may not need or want to avoid it altogether, and sometimes a little splurge is likely to cause minimal harm. Keeping that in mind, it's also healthy to moderate our mental intake of things that can cause us anxiety or distress, and everyone has their own definition and tolerance of these. For some it may be exposure to the headlines on television or in the paper, “doomscrolling” on social media, or watching movies or television shows with certain violent, scary, or gory themes. 

Hopefully a mental metaphor or two has resonated with you here to help you boost your mental fitness, and I know that I will be working on mine. And as a final word to the wise, please don’t see this as one more thing you have to keep track of our put on your ever-bulging to-do list, especially this month.

My hope is that this Mental Fitness thought offers you two helpful prompts:  1) To affirm some of the steps you’re already taking for your mental health. Much like saying, “I worked out today,” how about being able to say, “I worked on learning Spanish for 15 minutes today,” or, “I protected my time from distractions and gave myself two focused hours to get that project done.”  And 2) if you’d like to boost your mental fitness a degree or two more, to offer a novel nugget that you haven’t tried and can help you do just that.

Cheers to you and your Mental Fitness! 



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