Mental Fitness- An Alternative Relationship with Exercise
New Year’s Resolutions
January is almost at an end and for many, new year’s resolutions have been set and may be getting a bit difficult to keep. Often the goals set are set because they link in some way to an increase in a person’s level of health and well-being. But there is now wide-spread support for the idea of expanding out the definition of health in order to include mental health and so it can be good to tie any new year habits or resolutions to that. In relation to exercise, it is increasing being recognised both by the medical profession as well as by the public in general that to include exercise as part of a healthy diet for the mind as well as the body, really matters. The mental health ‘system’ may still be dominated by a medical model but increasingly, exercise is being ‘prescribed’ as part of a recovery plan around mental health. This link between exercise and mental health was one of the reasons why the 5km a Day Challenge for January appealed to me so much. I run for good mental health and setting goals that improve mental health and mental well-being; they are exactly the type of goals that have over time become a part of my stable diet. Mental health, both my own and that of others, is extremely precious and important to me and so mental fitness is absolutely always to the forefront of my mind.
Mental Fitness- Learning to See the Mind as a Muscle
Narratives become dominant in society and once they do, it can be hard to see past that narrative to a different, more complex view of something. Take the narrative that still hangs around in relation to fitness. From a young age, children are taught about the importance of fitness and exercise. Programmes such as The Food Dudes programme in schools are a great way to teach children about the importance of fruit and vegetables. But it doesn’t in any way address the importance of mental fitness or fitness for the mind. What daily diet of thoughts are young minds getting and how can exercise impact on the chemicals being pumped internally into our body to counteract the effect of any cortisol? That’s what I want to see on the curriculum. That’s what children need to know.
I was in a secondary school recently, as part of their mental health week and none of the students had even heard about mental fitness. As a society, we are still focussing a lot on physical fitness and that is good but what about mental fitness? There is a major problem in this country with suicide and mental ill-health and mental fitness should be higher up the agenda. One way to begin to start a conversation with anyone about mental fitness is to ask them to imagine their mind as a muscle. If you were to run a marathon, you would not suddenly expect the muscles in your arms and legs to get you through that without training. And so too it is with the mind. To be mentally well and mentally fit, you need to put in the training. Exercise along with a keen awareness of the thoughts that you are feeding into your system are two important steps to take when embarking on this journey.
Fitness and Physical Appearance
The fact that in our society today, there is a strong focus on physical appearance is something that needs to be acknowledged when it comes to the issue of fitness. Even on a show such as Operation Transformation, the appearance of the contestants is commented upon and applauded at the end of their long, difficult journey and while it is a TV show and therefore about visual content, it does also propel the notion that physical appearance matters a great deal. This is a narrative that some people buy into strongly and others buy into it to a much lesser extent. As a society, we need to be aware of our relationship with this narrative as young people are being impacted hugely by dominant narratives and we, while maybe not to the same extent as young people, soak up these ideas by osmosis. By widening the view of fitness to include an emphasis on the importance of mental fitness, there is a opportunity to help young people tune into their own interpretation of this narrative about the importance of physical appearance. By training yourself to focus on what it going on in your mind, you are in a better position to build resilience and feel good no matter what dominant narratives abound. Physical health matters. Mental fitness matters. Health matters. Does appearance? Only if you decide you want it to.
Anne McCormack is a Psychotherapist based in Dublin. She is one of many individuals countrywide who participated in the 5km a Day Challenge for January in aid of #livelive and #jigsawkerry organised by Poshey Aherne.