You probably have a good idea how to whip your body into shape, right? Work out consistently. Eat (relatively) clean. Rest and recover properly. But as more and more of us are realizing, physical fitness is only half the equation.
The term “mental fitness” refers to a positive state of well-being created through the general maintenance of both brain and emotional health. In other words, training how you think, feel and act in the same manner you would your biceps or quadriceps. But you can’t look at your mind the same way you do your muscles, says certified mental performance coach Carl Ohlson, which can make the concept difficult to grasp.
“It’s much harder to see what’s going on between somebody’s ears than it is to see what’s going on with their physiology,” explains the former Penn State assistant athletic director for performance psychology. “You have to really understand yourself, and then you have to figure out how to manage yourself in different environments, and that is, oftentimes, unique to the individual.”
Such a self-assessment might feel more intimidating than a one-rep max bench press, but in today’s world, mental fitness is taking center stage. According to research by the global market intelligence agency Mintel, nearly four out of five Americans (78 percent) cite mental and emotional well-being as inspiration for exercising, narrowly edging out physical well-being (76 percent). Additionally, a recent poll by the American Psychiatric Association showed that one-quarter of Americans made a New Year’s resolution to improve their mental health this year.
Thankfully, there are plenty of resources to get a boost in this area. Here’s a quick look at three approaches to mental fitness, followed by Ohlson’s thoughts and our own experiential feedback, to help you get your head in the game, so to speak.
Guided by Voices
Thanks to advances in telemedicine, app development and awareness of mental health, your phone can be the perfect brain trainer. A number of mindfulness, sleep management and guided meditation apps — like Calm ($70 per year), Headspace ($70 per year) and Breethe ($89 per year) — have demonstrated effectiveness in helping people’s brains rest, recover and re-energize.
“People talk about stress management a lot,” Ohlson says. “I prefer to talk about energy management, because a lot of stress isn’t automatically a bad thing. It can mobilize some energy and bring it to a good place. You just have to know how to regulate your energy levels, and some apps are quite good at that.”
I’ve relied on Calm to help facilitate my meditation schedule. I enjoy how easy it is to find that proper state of mind through the app’s guided services. But I wouldn’t recommend an app for addressing serious mental health conditions, which are still best treated with the help of trained professionals.
Your Brain on Drugs
Whether you’re training for a new deadlift PR or a more intuitive mindset, the supplement industry has an answer. Plenty of supplements are marketed as brain boosters, most notably in the subcategory known as nootropics. These “smart drugs” — such as Onnit’s Alpha Brain lineup ($35 and up) and Thesis Nootropic Formulas ($119 for a month’s supply) — claim to improve memory, focus, creativity, intelligence and motivation. But because dietary supplements aren’t regulated by the FDA — and in this case are targeting the sensitive structures of the brain — you need to be extra careful with them.
While he doesn’t necessarily embrace nootropics, Ohlson respects the nutrient-brain connection. “I recognize that if I’m on a sports performance team and I have a colleague there who’s an expert in nutrition, there’s a reason,” he says. “Because nutrition has to have these other impacts on the individual’s health and well-being.” Science backs him up. A review of 21 studies from 10 countries published in Psychiatry Research found that a healthful dietary pattern containing fruits, vegetables, whole grains and other items was associated with a reduced risk of depression. And according to Harvard Health Publishing, “the best brain foods are the same ones that protect your heart and blood vessels,” including green leafy vegetables, fatty fish, berries, tea, coffee and walnuts.
I’ve tried Onnit’s Alpha Brain products, and after a learning curve, I did feel a lift. But I’ve experienced similar results with a simple dietary switch. After all, supplements are just that — something you’re not getting from your normal nutrition. So before you buy a bottle, try adding some of the aforementioned foods to your diet and see if you can’t reap the same benefits — without the heightened uncertainty or expense.
Flexing Mental Muscles
Because of the variables that make up mental fitness, approaching a proper training regimen can seem daunting. But a mental workout can be much less of a chore than a physical workout. Apps like Lumosity ($48/year) and Elevate ($40/year) have grown in popularity, promoting puzzles, quizzes and challenges as a quick, unobtrusive way to unplug and focus on your well-being. These entertaining tasks have been shown to work both sides of the brain, improving focus, short-term memory and attention, according to a 2018 study published in Medical Science Monitor Basic Research.
Ohlson states that puzzle-based brain games, along with other modalities, have plenty of potential to benefit your health. “They have an undoing effect on stress response, they can help increase your immune system,” he observes, with a word of advice: “Be completely present in whatever you’re doing. It doesn’t matter as much what the activity is; it’s more about your philosophy toward the activity.”
I use Lumosity routinely, and the gaming aspect has proven to be a great way for me to stay focused and present in the moment. I’m always able to find 10 minutes in my day for cognitive training, especially when I can hold that workout in the palm of my hand.