'We can train our brains to do just about anything'

How you can exercise your mental fitness right now

What is fitness? It is something of an all-encompassing term, one with a plethora of different definitions. Personally, it comes down to what a Nazi-esque spinning class instructor said to a purple-faced me some years ago – “fitness is the ability to recover quickly”. Despite being about to fall off the bike, this succinct explanation stuck with me.

But what about mental fitness? This term is becoming increasingly popular as the underlying biological links between physical and mental health are more clearly understood. When we are winded by a major life event, being able to recover quickly requires significant mental strength and psychological resilience. But how do we achieve mental fitness, and can we avoid losing it?

Dr Mark Rowe is a GP and expert on wellbeing wisdom and holistic leadership. Author of the bestselling book A Prescription for Happiness, he asserts that mental health is not separate from overall health and wellbeing; rather it's a key interconnected component.

We can train our brains to do just about anything – we have that facility

"As far back as 1948, the World Health Organisation (WHO) defined health as more than the absence of disease but a state of complete physical, mental and relational wellbeing." This means that, just like our bodies, our brains will benefit from regular training, says Rowe.


“We can train our brains to do just about anything – we have that facility. I like to use the term ‘psychological fitness’ to remind us that, just as with our physical fitness, we can train our brains to better meet the needs of our lives.”

It isn’t just all in our heads – the brain is remarkably plastic, meaning it is capable of change and development. “With neuroplasticity, we can grow and develop new brain cells. Your brain can rewire and remould throughout your lifetime.”

So what’s the mental fitness equivalent of a couch potato?

Rowe says there are a number of reasons as to why someone might lose mental fitness; some of these we have control over, while others are completely out of our hands. It can be affected by lifestyle factors, such as lack of quality sleep, alcohol consumption, poor diet, insufficient exercise and/or a sedentary lifestyle. Our obsession with technology also doesn’t help – constantly checking our phone, email, and social media is behaviour Rowe describes as “toxic” to our mental health.

Unsurprisingly, trying or stressful times can be the ultimate test of mental fitness. “Major interpersonal stress, such as a serious illness in oneself or a close family member, unemployment, bereavement, or the loss of a key relationship, can also impact our psychological resilience.”

Rowe is therefore a strong advocate of being “proactive” when it comes to psychological health.

Those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything

“If there is one thing that we can be sure of in life, it’s that the next challenge is always around the corner. On top of this, we all inhabit a highly mediated world in which we are bombarded with vast amounts of information, much of which can be disconcerting. We rely on our psychological health to help us process and manage these complexities, and to do so in such a way that allows us to continue to take care of ourselves and our loved ones regardless of what life throws at us.”

George Bernard Shaw said "those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything", and according to Rowe, we naturally lose mental fitness as we age, and keeping an open mind is essential for maintaining it.

“It is an unfortunate reality of life that many people, as they get older, tend to become entrenched in their ideas and beliefs. It is hugely beneficial for our psychological health to maintain a spirit of openness and curiosity to the world around us. This openness to learning, translates into a greater ability to forgive, and to a greater ability to let go of, and move on from, difficult periods in your life. Education [can] improve your psychological health, increase your potential for happiness, and provide you with the tools to transform your life.”

Increased stress at work

For many of us, the source of much of our day-to-day stress is in our jobs. A 2015 survey by international human resources consultancy Mercer found that 82 per cent of Irish employees were facing increased stress at work.

Armin Forstner of Serrano 99 Management Consulting (serrano99.com), who has worked with companies such as WizzAir and Uber, specialises in the corporate application of positive psychology and mindfulness. He tells The Irish Times that mental fitness at work is as important as physical fitness and healthy nutrition for the overall well-being of employees.

“Study after study shows that around 70 per cent of the workforce is not engaged or is actively disengaged with their work. This leads to less productive teams, more sick days and general unhappiness,” he says.

Forstner says that the goal when he works with companies is to create a positive environment where people can thrive and work to their greatest potential. "In an environment where people are generally happier, they make better connections and have a more positive view."

The right leadership plays a huge role in this, and Forstner’s company is often asked to work with managers and directors on developing positive and mindful leadership skills. “Leaders of teams and organisations can counteract negative trends and help contribute positively to mental health. One way is to become a so-called 'positive leader' who applies positive psychology practices to themselves and looks holistically at their organisation to build a positive work environment”.

You have to build your strength and endurance week after week, and month by month

When asked for tips on how to improve mental fitness at work, Forstner immediately suggests some form of mindfulness training; while mindfulness courses can be extremely helpful, so too can meditation apps such as Headspace, which are free and can be used in the comfort of your own home.

“Regular mindfulness meditation is a great way to increase your own and your team’s mental fitness levels,” he says.

Just like your dream body, however, achieving mental fitness won’t happen overnight. Forstner says there are “no quick fixes”.

“It’s just like your muscles – you aren’t going to build them up by doing a single bench press; you have to build your strength and endurance week after week, and month by month,” he says. “Unfortunately, it takes time and effort, and it’s exactly the same with your mental fitness. It is something you have to practise every day.”

Exercise your mental fitness in work

  • Start a daily mindfulness practice: it can be for 5/10minutes, give yourself the space to pause for a short period and centre on your breathing. Apps such as Headspace and Calm have introductory modules for people starting off.
  • Contest your negative thoughts: separate fact from emotions (how you feel). We have a natural inclination towards the negative, it is one of the reasons why negative news stories draw our attention. Pause, examine what has actually happened versus what you feel has happened. Don't just accept your negative thoughts as a reflection of your reality.
  • Build positive relationships at work: spend time connecting with your colleagues. Build relationships based on respect, trust and kindness and foster these positive relationships.
  • Flip it: practise reframing the challenges you face. Look for the positives in each challenge, they may also be an opportunity. This will not change your situation but it places it in a different context that is likely to reduce the damage and put it in a healthier perspective for you and others.
  • Start your meetings on a positive note: a lot of people come to meeting expecting to make a point or defend a position, so they become focused on their perspective rather than been open to others. Start a practice of asking each person at the start of your meeting to share a personal or professional win from the previous few days. This will change the dynamic of the room for the better and help build positive relationships.
  • Spend more time in the now: it's important to remember that the past is an incomplete memory, your recollection of which is impacted by how you feel when you recollect, ie tired, sad, happy. The future hasn't actually happened, yet we spend a lot of time worrying about it. Much of what we worry about never actually comes to fruition. The now is what you can influence and have an impact on: how you perceive things, how you react to a situation, how you enjoy a moment.
  • Celebrate your successes: wins are important. They help generate positive emotions and help you feel like progress is being made. Small wins and big wins are important to each of us. Give yourself and others a pat on the back, and acknowledge success.
     - Tips from serrano99.com

Monitor your mental fitness

According to Dr Mark Rowe, answering “no” to any of these questions may represent an opportunity to enhance your physical and mental health. See doctormarkrowe.com for tips on how to do this

  • "Can you maintain focus without finding that your mind wanders?
  • "Do you meditate?
  • "Do you allow yourself moments of silence and solitude on a regular basis?
  • "Do your beliefs facilitate you taking the steps you need to reach your full potential?
  • "Do you find it easy to de-stress and separate yourself from your worries?
  • "Do you control the influence of your inner critic by actively evaluating what it says to you?
  • "Do you keep a journal?
  • "Do you have strong willpower?
  • "Do you find it easy to build new habits or break old habits?
  • "Do you regularly read or actively engage in learning new things?

Five things you can do right now to improve your mental fitness

Psychologist Nicole Paulie, of mymoodandme.com, gives her five tips on quick ways to improve your mental fitness:

  1. Write down three positive things that have happened today.
  2. Keep a journal – just write for five minutes every day about what's on your mind.
  3. Don't forget physical exercise. Just 15 minutes every day can help your mental fitness.
  4. Take two minutes each day to meditate – just focus on your breathing.
  5. Engage in a random act of kindness.