5 Simple Tips to Improve Mental Fitness

Mental fitness is a major concern for many people. 

It’s hardly surprising when you consider that one in five Americans suffers from a mental health disorder (1) and mental health issues are one of the leading causes of disability. (2)

Furthermore, neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s are a leading cause of death globally. (3)

However, the good news is there are lots of things you can do to improve your mental fitness and reduce your chances of mental health problems or cognitive decline.

Read on to discover the best ways to keep your mind healthy and 5 simple exercises you can practice in your everyday life.

Do you suspect that you or a loved one might have an attention-related mental condition such as ADHD? Try the FOCU-SHIF Conners test which can detect telltale signs such as restlessness and anxiety.

how to improve mental fitness

What is Mental Fitness?

Mental fitness is a state of emotional, psychological, cognitive, and social well-being. Someone who is mentally fit will experience more positive than negative emotions and be able to cope with the challenges of life.

There are many different factors that can contribute to your mental fitness, for example:

  • Genetics: genes or gene variants can be a risk factor for some mental health conditions. This means if you have a family member with a mental or psychological disorder you may be at a higher risk.
  • Lifestyle: An unhealthy lifestyle can put you at risk of poor mental fitness
  • Biological traits: Age, gender, and ethnicity may have an effect on your risk of developing certain health issues. For example, women are more likely than men to suffer from anxiety or eating disorders, whereas men are more likely to be affected by schizophrenia.
  • Ongoing serious health problems: Debilitating conditions such as diabetes, cancer, or chronic pain can increase your chances of developing a mental health problem like depression.

Keeping the Mind and Body Fit

The mind and body are not separate entities. A healthy body is the key to a healthy mind. Studies show that lifestyle can impact your risk of mental health and cognitive issues. (4)

Therefore, the first step to improving your brain’s health is to commit to an all-round healthy lifestyle.

It can be daunting to make huge lifestyle changes, so start with small steps and build on them.

Here are three pillars of a healthy lifestyle that benefit both brain and body.

A nutritious diet

A healthy, balanced diet is extremely important for mental fitness. (5)

Unfortunately, a large percentage of people still follow the “Standard American Diet”, which is high in sugar, additives, saturated fat, and sodium and is linked to poor mental health and cognitive decline, as well as a host of other issues. (6) (7)

A diet high in fruit and vegetables is good for the mind. (8) Here are some easy foods to incorporate into your diet:

  • Leafy greens such as spinach, broccoli, and kale. These contain Vitamin K which is linked to improved brain function. (9)
  • Omega 3, found in oily fish and nuts, is associated with brain health and mental wellness. (10)
  • A wide variety of fruits. Berries have been linked to a lower risk of depression. Oranges are high in Vitamin C which can fight cognitive decline.  (11)(12)
  • Eggs are a healthy source of protein and contain various vitamins, such as choline and vitamin B which are linked to brain health. (13)(14)

Limit your deep-fried foods and sugar, don’t smoke, and keep alcohol consumption low to moderate. (15)

Regular exercise

Time and again, research shows that exercise is great for fitness and mental health.

Exercise boosts blood flow to the brain and helps release endorphins. It can help fight depression and anxiety and reduce stress.

The benefits of exercise on mental fitness are far-reaching and include the following:

  • Improves memory, and helps to delay the onset and slow the progression of cognitive decline. (16)(17)
  • Promotes neuroplasticity and helps you learn (18)
  • Boosts mood and protects against depression and anxiety (19)

For healthy adults, the Department of Health and Human Services (20) recommends 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity, or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity spread out over the course of a week, combined with strength training a couple of times a week.

However, you don’t need to push yourself to extremes. Even a short brisk walk once a day can make a difference to mental health and cognition. (21)

Adequate sleep

Trouble sleeping is common in people with mental disorders such as anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). People with dementia also experience disturbed sleep patterns.

We need around 6-8 hours of sleep per night, and a full night’s rest can help the brain process information, help the body function well and boost the immune system.

Lack of sleep can contribute to mental health problems (22) The consequences of sleep deprivation on mental health include:

  • Irritable mood and exhaustion
  • Increased likelihood of developing a mental health condition
  • Exacerbated symptoms of existing mental health conditions

Early treatment of sleep disorders may be a key to improving your mental fitness.

To get a better night’s sleep, establish a relaxing nighttime routine and wind down before you go to bed. Avoid napping during the day, and eliminate screen time, caffeine and alcohol close to bedtime.

Exercise can also help you sleep better.

exercises to maintain mental fitness

5 Mental Exercises to Maintain Good Mental Fitness

As well as following the lifestyle advice above, there are other practices that can help your mental well-being.

Here are 5 mental exercises you can try today to keep your mind sharp and your mood positive.

1. Challenge your brain everyday

Stimulating the brain on a regular basis helps develop a sharper mind and increase “fluid intelligence”, the ability to reason and solve problems.

There are many different ways to stimulate and challenge your brain which can boost cognition and your mood.

Try playing brain training games. Studies show that cognitive training apps provide multiple short and long term cognitive benefits. (23)

Crosswords and puzzles that require logic and reasoning have been shown to help improve mental health and fight the onset of neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s. (24)

Spending a short time every day doing activities like these can have long term benefits on brain health and mental fitness.

2. Learn something new

Have you ever wanted to pick up an instrument or enroll in a language class? Learning helps you strengthen neural pathways and create new ones, which makes the brain stronger, more flexible and adaptable.

Research shows that learning and speaking another language may lessen your risk of cognitive decline. (25) (26)

Similarly, learning a complex new skill stimulates multiple areas of the brain and helps build new connections in the brain. (27) (28)

The sense of achievement, pride and purpose that is associated with making progress in a new skill also provides a boost to mental wellbeing.

learn something new to improve mental fitness

3. Practice meditation

Meditation is a great way to clear the mind and improve attention span and focus. It helps reduce stress and anxiety and is often recommended to help with a variety of mental health problems. (29) (30)

It may also help to prevent and treat symptoms of dementia. (31) and strengthen regions of the brain involved in learning and memory, emotion regulation, self-referential processing and perspective taking. (32)

Set aside a few minutes a day and find a calm, comfortable place. Close your eyes and breath naturally, focussing your attention on your breath and body. You may find your mind starts to wander, when this happens just gently bring your attention back to the breath.

Though meditation may seem difficult at first, it will get easier with practice.

4. Make time for hobbies

Having a regular hobby or passion is associated with a lower risk of dementia. (33)

People with hobbies are also much less likely to suffer because of their mental health. (34)

You may try many different activities before you find something you love to do. Whether it be a creative pursuit such as writing or painting, a team sport or a craft such as knitting or woodwork, you’ll reap the benefits in your mental health when you find your passion.

5. Socialize

Humans are social animals, and the importance of socializing for mental and physical well-being should not be underestimated.

Socializing boosts the mood and decreases symptoms of depression. Some evidence suggests that a healthy social life may help to protect against cognitive decline. (35)

Having a strong network can be a vital source of support for someone suffering with a mental health problem.

Make sure to maintain relationships with friends and family by keeping in touch. Spend time with friends and take advantage of opportunities to meet new people.

Your hobbies and interests can also provide an opportunity to socialize and connect with others emotionally.

Key takeaways

If you are struggling with your mental health, it’s always a good idea to talk to someone or see a doctor. Similarly, seek medical advice early on if you notice a decline in your cognitive abilities.

There are lots of things you can do to promote mental fitness, reducing your risk of mental illness and cognitive decline.

Firstly, aim to lead a healthy lifestyle and take care of your body by following a balanced diet, exercising regularly and sleeping well. Cut down on harmful habits such as heavy drinking, smoking and eating processed food.

In addition, you can stimulate your brain with enjoyable and challenging activities, learn new things, practice meditation and seek to maintain a vibrant social life.

References

(1) National Institute of Mental Health: Mental Illness. Retrieved on 8 July 2020 from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/mental-illness.shtml

(2) Mental Health Foundation: Mental Health Statistics: UK and worldwide. Retrieved on 8 July 2020 from https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/statistics/mental-health-statistics-uk-and-worldwide

(3) World Health Organization: The top 10 causes of death. Retrieved on 8 July 2020 from https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/the-top-10-causes-of-death

(4) Lourida I, Hannon E, Littlejohns TJ, et al. Association of Lifestyle and Genetic Risk With Incidence of Dementia [published online ahead of print, 2019 Jul 14]. JAMA. 2019;322(5):430-437. doi:10.1001/jama.2019.9879

(5) Redzo Mujcic and Andrew J.Oswald, 2016: Evolution of Well-Being and Happiness After Increases in Consumption of Fruit and Vegetables American Journal of Public Health 106, 1504_1510, https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2016.303260

(6) Lachance, L., & Ramsey, D. (2015). Food, mood, and brain health: implications for the modern clinician. Missouri medicine, 112(2), 111–115.

(7) Hu, N., Yu, J. T., Tan, L., Wang, Y. L., Sun, L., & Tan, L. (2013). Nutrition and the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. BioMed research international, 2013, 524820. https://doi.org/10.1155/2013/524820

(8) Ocean N, Howley P, Ensor J. Lettuce be happy: A longitudinal UK study on the relationship between fruit and vegetable consumption and well-being. Soc Sci Med. 2019;222:335-345. doi:10.1016/j.socscimed.2018.12.017

(9) Ferland G. Vitamin K, an emerging nutrient in brain function. Biofactors. 2012;38(2):151-157. doi:10.1002/biof.1004

(10) Yurko-Mauro K, McCarthy D, Rom D, et al. Beneficial effects of docosahexaenoic acid on cognition in age-related cognitive decline. Alzheimers Dement. 2010;6(6):456-464. doi:10.1016/j.jalz.2010.01.013

(11) Liu X, Yan Y, Li F, Zhang D. Fruit and vegetable consumption and the risk of depression: A meta-analysis. Nutrition. 2016;32(3):296-302. doi:10.1016/j.nut.2015.09.009

(12) Dreher M. L. (2018). Whole Fruits and Fruit Fiber Emerging Health Effects. Nutrients, 10(12), 1833. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu10121833

(13) Nurk E, Refsum H, Bjelland I, et al. Plasma free choline, betaine and cognitive performance: the Hordaland Health Study. Br J Nutr. 2013;109(3):511-519. doi:10.1017/S0007114512001249

(14) Smith AD, Smith SM, de Jager CA, et al. Homocysteine-lowering by B vitamins slows the rate of accelerated brain atrophy in mild cognitive impairment: a randomized controlled trial. PLoS One. 2010;5(9):e12244. Published 2010 Sep 8. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0012244

(15) Elwood P, Galante J, Pickering J, et al. Healthy lifestyles reduce the incidence of chronic diseases and dementia: evidence from the Caerphilly cohort study. PLoS One. 2013;8(12):e81877. Published 2013 Dec 9. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0081877

(16) Willem J.R.BossersPh.D.aLucas H.V.van der WoudePh.D.abFroukjeBoersma M.D., Ph.D.cTiborHortobágyiPh.D.aErik J.A.ScherderPh.D.adMarieke J.G.van HeuvelenPh.D.a A 9-Week Aerobic and Strength Training Program Improves Cognitive and Motor Function in Patients with Dementia: A Randomized, Controlled Trial Received 8 May 2014, Revised 17 December 2014, Accepted 25 December 2014, Available online 3 January 2015. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jagp.2014.12.191

(17) Fratiglioni L, Paillard-Borg S, Winblad B. An active and socially integrated lifestyle in late life might protect against dementia. Lancet Neurol. 2004;3(6):343-353. doi:10.1016/S1474-4422(04)00767-7

(18) KirstenHötting BrigitteRöder Beneficial effects of physical exercise on neuroplasticity and cognition, Biological Psychology and Neuropsychology, University of Hamburg, Hamburg, Germany Received 6 September 2012, Revised 2 April 2013, Accepted 17 April 2013, Available online 25 April 2013. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2013.04.005

(19) Craft, L. L., & Perna, F. M. (2004). The Benefits of Exercise for the Clinically Depressed. Primary care companion to the Journal of clinical psychiatry, 6(3), 104–111. https://doi.org/10.4088/pcc.v06n0301

(20) U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. https://www.hhs.gov/

(21) Suwabe K, Byun K, Hyodo K, et al. Rapid stimulation of human dentate gyrus function with acute mild exercise. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2018;115(41):10487-10492. doi:10.1073/pnas.1805668115

(22) Hong-taoSonga1Xin-yangSunb1Ting-shuYangc1Li-yiZhangdJia-linYangcJingBaicEffects of sleep deprivation on serum cortisol level and mental health in servicemenhttps://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijpsycho.2015.04.008

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(24) Pillai, J. A., Hall, C. B., Dickson, D. W., Buschke, H., Lipton, R. B., & Verghese, J. (2011). Association of crossword puzzle participation with memory decline in persons who develop dementia. Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society : JINS, 17(6), 1006–1013. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1355617711001111

(25)  Bak, T. H., Nissan, J. J., Allerhand, M. M., & Deary, I. J. (2014). Does bilingualism influence cognitive aging?. Annals of neurology, 75(6), 959–963. https://doi.org/10.1002/ana.24158

(26) Lojo-Seoane, Cristina ; Facal, David ; Juncos-Rabadán, Onésimo ; Pereiro, Arturo X . The level of vocabulary as an indicator of cognitive reserve in the evaluation of mild cognitive impairment An. Psicol ; 30 (3): 1115-1121, Oct. 2014.  Artigo in Spanish | IBECS | ID: ibc-126152

(27) Park, D. C., Lodi-Smith, J., Drew, L., Haber, S., Hebrank, A., Bischof, G. N., & Aamodt, W. (2014). The impact of sustained engagement on cognitive function in older adults: the Synapse Project. Psychological science, 25(1), 103–112. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797613499592

(28) Park, D. C., Lodi-Smith, J., Drew, L., Haber, S., Hebrank, A., Bischof, G. N., & Aamodt, W. (2014). The impact of sustained engagement on cognitive function in older adults: the Synapse Project. Psychological science, 25(1), 103–112. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797613499592

(29) Goyal M, Singh S, Sibinga EM, et al. Meditation programs for psychological stress and well-being: a systematic review and meta-analysis. JAMA Intern Med. 2014;174(3):357-368. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2013.13018

(30) Jain FA, Walsh RN, Eisendrath SJ, Christensen S, Rael Cahn B. Critical analysis of the efficacy of meditation therapies for acute and subacute phase treatment of depressive disorders: a systematic review. Psychosomatics. 2015;56(2):140-152. doi:10.1016/j.psym.2014.10.007

(31) Khalsa DS. Stress, Meditation, and Alzheimer’s Disease Prevention: Where The Evidence Stands. J Alzheimers Dis. 2015;48(1):1-12. doi:10.3233/JAD-142766

(32) Hölzel, B. K., Carmody, J., Vangel, M., Congleton, C., Yerramsetti, S. M., Gard, T., & Lazar, S. W. (2011). Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry research, 191(1), 36–43. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pscychresns.2010.08.006

(33) Hughes, T. F., Chang, C. C., Vander Bilt, J., & Ganguli, M. (2010). Engagement in reading and hobbies and risk of incident dementia: the MoVIES project. American journal of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias, 25(5), 432–438. https://doi.org/10.1177/1533317510368399

(34) HUANG Lei, XU Long, ZHU Dao-min, et al: Relationship between hobbies and interests and mental health of the elderly in urban and rural communities (Anhui Science and Technology Publishing House, Hefei, Anhui 230071, China)(35) Fratiglioni L, Paillard-Borg S, Winblad B. An active and socially integrated lifestyle in late life might protect against dementia. Lancet Neurol. 2004;3(6):343-353. doi:10.1016/S1474-4422(04)00767-7