Physical fitness creates healthier human beings - that much we can agree on. We’re all familiar with the concept of exercise, and whether it’s boxing, running, hiking, HIT class or a vigorous boogie, most of us have one or many ways of keeping ourselves fit. We know working out is good for us, and thus, it’s ingrained in our society.
It hasn’t always been this way, though. Back in the 40’s, if you told a friend you were going for a run, they’d look at you like you were nuts. Who were you running from? And what on earth would you wear? It wasn’t until scientists started showing that running and other forms of physical exercise were good for our health that attitudes started to change.
Word spread fast: working out would strengthen our muscles and support our lung and heart health. Everyone jumped on the bandwagon, and it’s now well established that this practice gives us increased energy and endurance to function at a higher level in our everyday lives.
We can actually build our mental fitness in a very similar way. Yep, bicep curls for the mind - it’s a thing. And just like physical exercise, mind training has been shown to improve our brain health, mood, energy and the way we function on the daily. It can fight disease, help us to experience more joy, and even improve our sex lives. Curious yet?
Being mentally fit basically means we’ve strengthened our ability to stay in the here and now: to be present. Being present means we’re more aware of what’s going on with our thoughts, feelings and emotions, and this awareness is powerful. Life can be intense and hard sometimes, and increased awareness gives us more choice about how we react or respond to life’s inevitable stresses.
Through training of the brain, we are able to see more clearly how we engage with ‘stimulus’ - in other words, how we relate to the things that happen in our lives. It’s a concept that author and holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl wrote about. He says it best, so we’ll let him:
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
So basically, training the mind lets us assess a situation before acting impulsively or automatically. Take an argument with someone dear to you: your anger might escalate to the point where you can’t think of anything else. You might be yelling without any sense of control. Or, your ever-growing to-do list might overwhelm you to the point that you can’t even start on the first thing. At this point, self-criticism and procrastination might halt all progress.
This happens when we are on autopilot, a state some of you might be familiar with. Thanks to evolution, this autopilot is on when we are not present and has us constantly scanning for threats. A message left on ‘seen’ might escalate into an elaborate mental story about how a friend no longer likes us. An urgent email might send our heart racing. This was once useful when living as cave people, however whether it’s replaying a conversation or fretting about not having enough money for the future, these modern-day threats tend trigger emotions like fear, worry, guilt and stress the same way our body would respond to a tiger. These emotions were once needed to keep us alive however, we now live in a very different world, and freaking out about emails and conversations and money keeps us far more stressed than we need to be. Mental fitness helps us to deactivate this auto-pilot, which, let’s be honest, is pretty uptight and not that much fun.
Mental fitness gives us the ability to pause. It gives us the choice to respond more effectively, to consider the argument we are currently in with some of the wisdom which might otherwise have only dawned on us an hour later. The fitter we are, the better we can maintain mental clarity when we’re consumed by emotion, and the less reactive we’ll be. It also gives us the mental capability to know when we need to respond for survival, and what threats actually pose physical danger to us. In other words, we’ll start to avoid unnecessary suffering.
Our brains are full of neural pathways, which is basically how we process the world. The more we experience a thought, feeling or practice, the stronger these pathways become. They’ve also been dubbed superhighways, because as our thoughts, feelings and habits travel along them in a particular direction, they get stronger - like any muscle. As this happens, these pathways also become more automatic, and we pretty much form habits as we grow up based on input from the people and environment around us.
Brushing your teeth, for example, is a well-trodden superhighway. It’s second nature; we don’t have to think about it, and it requires very little effort. The same kind of thing can happen when we get into a big fight. Our previously strengthened pathways jump online, and we react the way we always have - which is often not all that effectively. The good thing is that science has shown our brain to be plastic: we can change up our neural pathways, it just requires a bit of effort. What used to be put down to ‘personality’ (like a tendency to lash out in an argument) is now known to simply be a habit of our unconscious mind.
What this means is that not only can our actions be automatic, but so can our thinking. The more mental training we do, the more we can re-route our pathways in directions which bring us closer to the person we want to be. It requires some mahi; imagine trying to cut a path for the first time through dense bush. It can be challenging, but by walking the same way every day, bit by bit it gets easier. By following this path every time, it becomes the obvious way to go. Mental training (like a sharp axe, some solid shoes and a strong set of biceps) improves our ability to create new pathways in the brain.
Being mentally fit means we’re actually operating at a higher cognitive level. It’s a hack of the most powerful variety, helping us to stay focused on the task at hand by strengthening connections between our state of focussed attention and the wandering mind. It also improves our working memory, storing information in the brain whilst using less precious energy. This gives us better efficiency and endurance, and makes us better listeners. It also helps with habit forming and goal achieving, and the list goes on, really.
When we rewire the pathways in our brains, we:
So, when we work out the mind, we are activating our prefrontal cortex. This is the region at the very front of the brain, which is linked to focus, concentration, emotional awareness and management, personality expression, connection and social behaviour. A concentrated powerhouse of wisdom, if you will, all tucked into our foreheads. And just like making gains at the gym, the more we train it, the more useful it will be, and the better our mental performance will become.
Mindfulness meditation is one of the tools which helps to train the brain and bring the prefrontal cortex online. This in turn strengthens our neural pathways to be in the present moment. As we meditate, we focus on an anchor. Then, when our mind (inevitably) starts to wander, we bring our awareness gently back to this present moment anchor. Over and over again. It is actually pretty simple.
We’re not trying to get rid of thoughts here - that would be impossible. We are simply observing when the mind wanders, and returning to right here, right now. And, though it can be calming, meditation is not simply a relaxation technique. It’s a tool to engage more deeply with every aspect of our lives.
Meditation is fantastic. But it’s not the only way to train the brain. Here are some other practices which can improve our mental fitness:
The good thing about these tools? They’re actually fun to use. And they’re getting more commonplace. Noticed more meditation cushions and gratitude lists appearing in your social feeds? Things are changing. The world is waking up to the power of mental training to transform lives. At this rate, it may just be the new running. Happy brain training!
Written by Charlotte Ritchie
Edited by Georgia Merton.