How To Improve Mental Fitness & What It Entails

It’s like working out your brain.

by Natalia Lusinski
Santi Nuñez/Stocksy
improve mental fitness

Physical fitness is talked about a lot in society — but what about mental fitness — how do you improve that? Can we work out our brains, so to speak, the same way we do our bodies? In essence: Yes. “[It’s about] developing the mental, emotional, and spiritual resiliency to meet life and thrive, no matter our external circumstances,” explains Tina Lifford, actor, CEO of The Inner Fitness Project, and author of The Little Book of Big Lies: A Journey Into Inner Fitness. “The World Health Organization predicts that the most significant global health risk by 2030 will be depression. We can, and must, redesign our approach to well-being.”

Haley Perlus, PhD, who specializes in sports and performance psychology, adds that mental fitness essentially means keeping your brain and emotional health in good shape, just as you would your physical health. “By keeping your brain active and ‘exercised,’ you can keep it sharp,” she tells TZR in an email. “However, it is equally as essential to allow time for relaxation. Actively managing stress and building resiliency are excellent methods for maintaining or improving mental fitness.”

Perlus continues, explaining that with so much going on in the world these past few years mental health has never been more critical. “When you're mentally fit, how you interact with the world is different,” she says. “Instead of allowing yourself to go from reaction to reaction, you take your time to pause and respond in the way you'd prefer, rather than reacting quickly.”

Karol Ward, therapist, and author of Worried Sick: Break Free From Chronic Worry to Achieve Mental & Physical Health, adds that mental fitness can help you maintain emotional equilibrium. “It not only supports your ongoing mental health, but also helps you recognize and find the best resources to keep you functioning at your best,” she tells TZR in an email. “When we first start implementing good inner fitness habits, we might not feel something shift right away. Like any new habit, give it time and know that you are building a foundation for solid mental health.”

So how does one even start working on their mental fitness? Ahead, experts reveal the habits and steps you can start taking now.

Acknowledge That You Want To Feel Better

Lifford says the first step toward building inner fitness is acknowledging that you want to feel better in your life. “The work we do [at The Inner Fitness Project] helps you know you can feel better,” she says. “You can create a fulfilled life by tending to your inner ‘self,’ learning to productively think about what you want, who you want to become, and how you want to be and respond in life — especially under pressure.”

Journal About What You Want In Life

Lifford says journaling is the next step, particularly in regards to answering the questions above. “Your journal becomes the first place your vision is made ‘concrete,’ and your captured vision for your life becomes a magnet drawing energetically aligned people, experiences, and information needed to manifest your vision,” she says. “Having a vision stimulates hope, a sense of possibility, and purpose; these energies activate a higher level of consciousness and thinking. Spending quality time with yourself helps you live your life on purpose.” And the good news is, you can tweak or change your life vision as you go, she adds.

Get In Touch With Your Core Values

Related to the above, Ward suggests getting in touch with your core values, too. “Core values are the defining principles that you live your life by every day,” she says. “Most times when people are conflicted or are feeling off-balance, it’s because they are not in alignment with their core values. First, look at a list of words related to core values — including ones such as creativity, ambition, and leadership — and choose all the words that you emotionally connect to (don’t overthink it!). Next, narrow your list down and choose the five most important ones.” She says to keep this list handy and review it when you feel off-balance or out of sync with who you are. “You’ll be able to make good self-care choices once you know what’s out of balance,” she says.

Read Self-Empowering Books & Play Word Games

Reading self-empowering books can also help you decide what direction you’d like to go in with your mental fitness journey. “The Little Book of Big Lies teaches you to make self-empowering choices, no matter what has happened in your life,” Lifford says. “It helps you see and neutralize the mistaken unsupportive self-perceptions that limit your sense of self and what is possible for your life.” She says she wrote each page to help readers see themselves on the page, and there are clear steps at the end of each chapter that allow you to implement what you learn.

Ward, too, says in her book, Worried Sick, she takes a holistic approach to coping with the circumstances in life that cause us to feel anxiety and stress. “I wanted readers to understand the different ways worry shows up and how they could shift the feeling using a body-mind-spirit approach,” she says. Ward offers a variety of tools for her readers, from the practical to the spiritual, which allows them to choose what will work best, depending on what they need. Perlus adds that creating puzzles, doing crossword puzzles, and even using brain training apps can sharpen memory and cognitive function while improving processing speed.

Meditate, Pray, Or Take Part In A Spiritual Practice

“Regularly partaking in meditation and mindfulness exercises can help keep your mind at ease,” says Perlus. “It can slow down your anxieties to help you think through situations thoroughly and not react emotionally.” Ward agrees, saying meditation not only calms the mind and body, but the practice of meditation is considered a spiritual discipline. When you schedule the time daily to meditate, you are creating a regular habit of connecting to yourself. Ward adds that prayer is another way in which you can quiet your mind and express and share your inner concerns with a Higher Power/the Universe. “When you carve out the time to pray, you allow yourself the space to unburden your mind and heart,” she says. “That connection to the god of your understanding can offer you a great deal of peace.”

Explore 12-Step Programs, Life-Coaches, & Therapy

Outside help can come in many forms, including 12-step meetings, coaches, and therapists — and there are a variety of each available. Ward says there are many mental fitness benefits from each. “Attending 12-Step meetings gives you a place to bond with like-minded souls who are using the tools of those programs to heal,” she explains. “The shared sense of purpose toward recovery offers stability, hope, and comfort, all which contribute to mental fitness.” And 12-Step programs come in many forms, from Alcoholics Anonymous to Al-Anon (for friends and family of alcoholics) to Gamblers Anonymous to Food Addicts Anonymous, and more.

Various types of coaches, too, can provide support and accountability for all areas of life, Ward says. “Having someone to motivate, challenge, and applaud your efforts helps you to stay focused on building good self-care habits, both personally and professionally,” she says. Similarly, therapists can offer you both the space and insight to tackle any emotional blocks that are keeping you from living a fulfilling life. “The empathy and guidance you receive will help you stay emotionally balanced during life's tough periods — and help you stay mentally fit,” Ward says.

Exercise & Eat Smart

“Working out can relax the mind while relieving stress and tension,” says Perlus. Research shows that the endorphins you get after a workout — including a walk — boost your mood and sense of well-being, aside from helping to strengthen your muscles and keeping you physically fit. Other benefits include reducing pain and the risk of chronic disease, helping you sleep better, and improving your brain health, like memory and learning ability. “In addition, since your brain needs water, staying hydrated helps with optimal cognitive functioning,” Perlus adds. “Daily fruit and vegetable intake, too, helps support optimal gut health and brain health.”

Take 5-Minute Stress Breaks (As Often As Necessary)

Ward says an essential way to keep mentally fit is by taking five-minute stress breaks … as often as you need to, especially when you feel overwhelmed. “Often, when we feel this way, we can’t imagine that things can feel better, but we can,” she says. “Consciously taking the time to slow down will help us catch up to ourselves again. This is a great mental fitness habit to incorporate into daily life and can be done on a train, bus, or before you hop onto your next Zoom meeting.”