Everyone wants to be fitter. It’s up there with the most common new year resolutions.

Fitness is an admirable state, whether you define it as a clothing size, a sub 3-hour marathon or how much weight you can deadlift. It should be an ongoing process too, rather than a holiday project. Our physical fitness is essentially our bodies ability to cope with stress, fulfil or achieve a certain task. Building it requires practice, consistency and time – maybe by running, walking or lifting weights in the gym. We have to expose our bodies to stress to cause adaptation and improve our tolerance in future.

All of this might seem obvious or self-explanatory. But why don’t we train our minds in the same way?

Mental fitness is defined as a state of well-being and having a positive sense of how we feel, think, and act. Mental fitness is a fairly new concept that helps us to view our mental well-being as important as our physical fitness – and as something we need to proactively work on regularly too. Like a muscle; we either use it or lose it. It’s not an end goal or something to fix: it’s a continual work in progress.

Language is important when it comes to well-being. ‘Mental health’ is a broader term and often seen as a negative, a problem or something to be fixed. We either have it or we don’t. In reality, we all have mental health, and we all have periods of good or poor mental health dependent on what’s going on in our lives, even without a diagnosed mental health condition.

Mental fitness acknowledges that we all have difficult periods, but we can all do something about it. The goal isn’t to remove these challenges or difficult emotions which make us human. We all have bad days. But training our mental fitness improves our ability to deal with these and maintain a positive mindset. It prevents sadness or worry developing into a mental health condition such as depression or anxiety, and therefore improves our overall mental health.

It also helps us recognise that we need to be proactive, in the same way that stopping your gym sessions might cause you to gain weight. For example, a lack of sleep, recovery and nutrition puts us at risk of injury and illness. The same is true for our mental well-being. Ever felt tearful or found yourself ‘snapping’ after a poor night’s sleep, or a busy week at work?

So, how do we build our mental fitness?

Take stock of where you are –

Much like going to the doctors for a check-up, it helps to know our current level and how well we are functioning on a daily basis, then we can identify goals and actions to take. If we’re currently a 4 out of 10 – what could we do to reach a 5 or 6, and ultimately a 9 or 10?

Movement is medicine –

Naturally, physical and mental fitness go hand-in-hand. After a recent bout of illness I was unable to exercise for a few weeks, and quickly noticed how my anxiety spiked, I experienced panic attacks; my mood and motivation dipped. The ‘feel good’ endorphins of exercise cannot be underestimated and you don’t need to run marathons to get the benefit. Small and often is the most beneficial. Just 15 minutes of movement can reduce blood pressure and improve your mood. Choose something that you enjoy. Movement should be fun – not a chore! Too busy? Try taking a walking meeting, or bring others/the kids with you for accountability.

Keep on top of stress –

Stress itself is not a bad thing – only if we have too much. And there’s no shortage of stress in our lives. We all need ways to turn down the tap before it starts to damage our physical or mental health. Exercise is a good stress booster but not always practical. Breathwork is one of my favourites and is accessible to everyone, anywhere. Slow controlled breathing signals the body to calm down and lessens the ‘fight or flight’ response which many of us live in on a regular basis. Have a look at the free ‘Breathwork’ app.

Mindset is a skill –

Our thoughts and behaviours are programmed by our beliefs and past experiences, but with practice our mindset can be re-wired to think differently. In my talks I use a tool called ‘Red 2 Blue’ which helps us to recognise, accept and choose where we focus our attention. Notice catastrophising and unhelpful thoughts, and question what might have triggered them. Is there a different perspective you could take? Are you worrying about something that hasn’t happened yet?

Self-care –

OK, running ultra-marathons probably doesn’t scream the words self-care… But what are things that make you feel good? We all book commitments into our diaries, but how often do we book time in for ourselves? Maybe it’s taking the time for a brew, a treat lunch, or even taking 30 minutes off your phone to check in with yourself and notice the world around you. Mindfulness is a simple tool to stay in control of our thoughts, that we can practice in short bursts throughout the day.

Create a routine –

Having a clear plan for the day and the week gives you an element of control and the opportunity to prioritise rather than getting overwhelmed by stress. It allows you to be proactive rather than reactive to the inevitable stresses and demands that emerge and compromise our self-care time. I habitually start every morning by planning my key tasks, events, intentions and what I’m grateful for, and reviewing this at the start of each new week.

Build habits, not just goals –

Measuring mental fitness is much harder to quantify than running a Parkrun in a certain time or hitting a target body weight or dress size. But habits are continuous, whereas our motivation tends to wane once we achieve the goal. As Peter Drucker once said, “you can’t improve what you don’t measure”. Perhaps it could be to avoid social media until a certain time each day, a yoga session before breakfast, or reading 30 minutes before bed each night? Again, I track these in my diary each day.

So, what elements are you going to include in your mental fitness training plan?

There are plenty more ways, and not all of these will work for you. But this year, Mental Health Awareness Week is all about ‘movement’. Naturally I’m biased, but I hope this blog inspires you to move more often!

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