We are all familiar with the concept of building physical fitness. In
fact, as we age and our parts become more “worn,” most of
us discover that physical activity seems to be the one thing that reliably
keeps the joints lubricated.
In my own case, I was never into physical exercise in my younger years.
In fact, would pretty much go out of my way to avoid it. In my 50s, it’s
essential. As soon as I stop, my body starts seizing up.
So it was with some interest that I noted the concept of building
mental fitness being promoted by mental health professionals. But
it make sense. Building physical fitness gives us a cushion of physiological
support to fall back on when illness or injury occurs.
- less likely to become ill and recover more quickly when
- less likely to suffer injuries from falls or other trauma
- injuries are less severe and heal faster when we are injured
Similarly, a high level of mental fitness cushions the blow of stressful
situations and events that might otherwise overwhelm us. We are better
- think clearly
- develop creative problem-solving strategies
- stay positive
How do we build mental fitness?
- to people that make us feel good about ourselves
- to activities that make us feel happy, useful, and accomplished
Exercise our Bodies
Many researchers believe that regular exercise is the single most important
thing we can do to improve our mental fitness. Exercise:
- stimulates the production of endorphin, a chemical which provides
stress relief and makes us feel good
- helps us sleep better
- increases our energy levels
- keeps our digestive and elimination systems moving (think: walk
- puts us in contact with other people
- enhances our self esteem as we see progress
- improves our physical health - when we feel better physically our
mood naturally improves
Eat for Health
As we get older, and particularly if we live alone, it is very easy to
slip into some very bad eating habits. Over time, poor nutrition robs
our bodies of the fuel it needs to stay healthy and strong. Some strategies:
- develop a list of healthy and quick-to-prepare meals
- make too much and freeze left-overs in one-meal sizes
- make healthy choices in restaurants and fast food outlets
- eat lots of small meals instead of just a couple big ones
Having a routine to follow for the everyday stuff of life leaves our brains
free to work on the more challenging issues. Our bodies respond well to
routine and sleep is one thing that comes more easily when our bodies
know what to expect:
- go to bed and get up at the same time every day
- get your mind and body ready for sleep in the evening - have a warm
bath, do a relaxation exercise, read a book before turning out the light
- avoid things that are stimulating, upsetting, or thought-provoking
just before bed (e.g. vigorous exercise, watching the news)
Interrupt Negative Thinking
Negative thinking is that little voice in your head that puts a negative
spin on everything. For example, when a friend cancels lunch, negative
She probably got a better offer.
She never liked me much anyway.
I’m such boring company why would anyone want to have lunch with
This kind of thinking becomes a bad habit. It makes us feel badly about
ourselves. But it can be broken. Interrupt and challenge the facts with
Is that really true?
What hard evidence do I have?
What other possibilities might there be?
What advice would I give someone else who was feeling bad because their
friend cancelled lunch?
Then re-write the statement, making it realistic. The goal is not to
give incidents a positive “spin” that is not true, but to
make sure that the version we keep in our heads is realistic.
Plan Ahead for Stress
Some stressful situations and events jump out of nowhere. These are hard
to plan for, but being in good mental and physical condition gives us
the ability to bounce back when we are ambushed
But many stressful situations are not surprises. They can be planned
for. Christmas, for example, has come on the same date every year since
I can remember. Family holidays, birthday celebrations, new jobs, out-of-town
visitors ...all generally come with advance notice.
Planning for these stressful events can make all the difference:
What genuinely must be done and what can be eliminated?
What can be delegated to someone else to do?
What can be purchased or contracted for?
What can I do in advance?
What can I say NO to?
Involve yourself in activities that make you exercise that brain muscle
by solving problems, coordinating body parts, being creative, etc. Some
ideas: learn a new language, play poker, build furniture, do crosswords
or play a musical instrument.
Build some muscle, climb a mountain, join a walking club, start swimming
lengths. Keep track of your progress and celebrate improvement.
Reach out to other people. Start with a smile. Move on to an introduction.
Talk to the people around you. Make a new friend.
Dream and Set Goals
Dare to dream...
Where would you like to be in five years?
How would someone get there?
What steps would they break the journey down into?
Where would YOU start?
Setting goals, working on them, accomplishing one step at a time. That’s
what keeps us motivated and engaged in life.