Psychological Fitness

How much time and effort should one devote to psychological fitness?

Many of us pay attention to physical fitness, especially after the December holidays.  January is the time of year when people typically start new exercise programs or go back to the gym after a couple of weeks away.

Sadly, most of us give little thought to psychological fitness.  This is self-defeating because psychological fitness is important if we want to reap the benefits of a sharper mind. It’s an essential component of brain and emotional health.  Equally important, without psychological fitness, it will be difficult to keep those New Years Resolutions at the gym.

Psychological fitness is critical to ageing successfully. Our lives will be richer, deeper and happier when we focus on more than physical health.

What is Psychological Fitness?

Psychological fitness is defined as ‘the integration and optimization of mental, emotional, and behavioural abilities and capacities to optimize performance and strengthen the resilience of warfighters.’ –quote from 2010 Oxford University study by Bates et al published in Military Medicine, Vol. 175

Wow!  A definition of psychological fitness that considers preparation to become a warrior! Apparently, the term ‘psychological fitness’ was first used in 2010 after a study of fitness for duty in the UK armed services. The US also places a high value on psychological fitness positing that developing, sustaining, and restoring psychological resources is critical for mind-body balance in a total force fitness framework.

It turns out that psychological fitness is also commonly called mental fitness and links to resilience, dealing with stress, and preventing mental illness. It is commonly thought of as a state of well-being.

Psychological Fitness or Readiness for Life — photo courtesy of Bruce Mars

I like to think of psychological or mental fitness as readiness to face life and whatever it brings. Psychological fitness helps us face the challenges of living.

Psychological Fitness and Ageing

Psychological fitness is essential for healthy ageing. Our brain controls how we think, feel and act.  The brain responds to happiness and joy as well as fear, anxiety, isolation, and anger. That’s why it pays to minimize negative feelings,  stay positive and optimistic, maintain social connections, and stay mentally sharp.

Staying mentally sharp means exercising the brain with some form of strenuous mental activity.  Experts on ageing recommend that we keep challenging our brains by undertaking creative pursuits, learning new skills, and engaging in meaningful hobbies.

Some of us worry that we will lose our ‘edge’ as we grow older.  We worry that our abilities wane as we grow older. Notably, we forget that older people can and will constantly find new ways to do things.  We may absorb information and learn more slowly, but we certainly don’t lose the ‘edge’.

Many people believe that fun activities such as crossword puzzles,  Sudoku, or other mental games support mental fitness. Neurological research does not support this commonly held belief. The brain is a muscle that thrives on exercise to keep neural pathways open.  Performing tasks that force problem solving or make you grapple with complexity are more important than Sudoku or daily crossword puzzles that may not even give much mental stimulation.

If we want to attain psychological fitness when growing older, it’s critical to push yourself a bit by stepping out of the comfort zone. It’s a case of use it or lose it. Memory, attention span, problem-solving ability and decision-making depend on psychological fitness.

How to Develop Psychological Fitness

There is no single approach to promoting psychological fitness, regardless of age. In the blog, Lifeworks, Morneau Sheppel proposes that mental fitness and physical fitness are intertwined. Four pillars of mental fitness are proposed by Morneau Sheppel:  emotional, social, financial, and physical

There are strategies that may help each of us develop/maintain our psychological fitness:

  1. Use positive self-talk.  Optimism is clearly associated with psychological fitness.  It builds confidence and strengthens the capacity to solve problems.
  2. Develop self-regulation techniques to control behaviour and emotions.
  3. Meditation, relaxation and breathing exercises can calm the mind, slow reactions, and control stress.
  4. Stay flexible and adaptable to cope with life changes.
  5. Practise using your memory by remembering lists, learning poetry, or practising math problems.
  6. Keep learning new things to exercise and challenge the brain.
  7. Develop a performance mindset with intentional thoughts about achievement and success.
  8. Foster an active social life knowing that friendship ignites the ‘feel-good’ parts of the brain.
  9. Keep a healthy physical lifestyle that includes exercise, sleep, and good nutrition.

The time and effort that each of us devotes to psychological fitness will pay off in terms of staying sharp. We can optimize our mental, emotional and behavioural strengths to savour what life brings without nostalgia about the past.

Thanks for reading this post.  I’m interested in your comments about maintaining psychological fitness. If you like my blog, please tell your friends about it and consider becoming a subscriber to receive an email when I publish new material

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