How to Exercise Your Brain for Better Mental Fitness

Medicare Benefits Solutions
Feb 23, 2022

There are a lot of options when it comes to working out physically, but it may seem more challenging to find ways to exercise your brain to improve your mental health. Like physical fitness, some mental health activities can take place in groups, while others may require more focus on yourself. 

Understanding how you can boost your brain for better mental health can lead to greater overall wellness.

What is Mental Health?

There was a time when people avoided talking about mental health, and fortunately, that is changing. Look no further than Olympic gymnast Simone Biles, professional tennis star Naomi Osaka, and NFL players like DJ Chark and Solomon Thomas. These physically fit athletes have all been very public about their struggles with mental health, and acknowledge the importance of protecting one’s mental well-being. 

Focusing on the importance of mental health and available resources is critical to eliminating the stigma and getting people the help they need.

Mental health, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):

  • Includes emotional, psychological and social well-being
  • Impacts how we think, feel and behave
  • Determines how we manage stress, relate to people and make choices that affect our health

How to Achieve Better Mental Fitness

A balanced mind, body, and spirit is key to maintaining and strengthening your overall well-being. Practicing mental fitness includes memory, social and relaxation exercises that can help you keep your brain sharp, promote emotional balance, raise self-awareness and deal with stress. 

Though not discussed as much as physical fitness, mental fitness is equally as important, and the benefits of being mentally fit feed into physical fitness. Mental fitness improves your drive to stay active and make healthy choices. 

A key component of maintaining optimal psychological health is working on your emotional wellness. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) offers checklists and strategies. Here’s a brief sample of ideas based on the NIH emotional wellness toolkit:

  1. To foster a positive mindset, keep a gratitude journal to note what you are grateful for each day.
  2. Cope with stress and boost your resilience by practicing mindfulness and breathing exercises.
  3. Ensure quality sleep by modifying your bedtime routine, such as keeping a regular schedule and arranging a sleep environment that is dark, quiet and comforting.
  4. If you are mourning a loss, find a grief support group, and hold off on major decisions or changes.
  5. Boost social connections by being active in your community or taking a class that interests you.
  6. Be mindful of what you are feeling and what is happening around you by practicing breathing exercises and enrolling in teacher-guided programs.

Mental Health Among Older Adults

According to the Anxiety & Depression Association of America (ADAA), the most common anxiety disorder detected in older adults is generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), “characterized by persistent and excessive worry about a number of different things.” If you have GAD, you may find yourself avoiding certain situations because of worries, such as social gatherings and travel. If the condition is severe and you have trouble performing simple daily activities, seek professional help. 

The ADAA offers these coping strategies for anyone feeling anxiety or stress:

  1. Step back from the issue and clear your head, applying relaxation techniques like meditation, massages, yoga and music.
  2. Consume well-balanced meals, and be sure to keep energy-boosting snacks within reach so that you’re not tempted by unhealthy options.
  3. Avoid alcohol and caffeine, which can make your anxiety worse and launch panic attacks.
  4. Give your body the additional rest it needs to cope with stress.
  5. Exercise every day to maintain good health.
  6. Practice deep breathing, inhaling and exhaling at a slow pace.
  7. Try counting slowly to 10 or 20.
  8. Refrain from being a perfectionist, and take pride in whatever you achieve.
  9. Maintain a realistic perspective by acknowledging that you can’t control everything.
  10. Keep a good sense of humor because laughter is a healthy function of the body. 
  11. Replace negative with positive thinking, and keep up the positive attitude.
  12. Develop a support network and take a break from stress by volunteering your time to help others or finding some other way to be involved in your community.
  13. Explore the triggers that bring on your anxiety. Keeping a journal can help because your writing can reveal patterns.
  14. When you are feeling overwhelmed, let someone help you, either a friend, family member or doctor.

You probably don’t need to read a book to know how much better you feel after a long walk or other enjoyable physical activity. There are many research studies that validate this connection between physical activity and mental wellness. 

A paper in the archives of General Hospital Psychiatry, published in PubMed Central (PMC), reviewed the positive effects of physical activity on cognitive impairment and depression among older adults. The research concludes that physical activity and other lifestyle interventions give promise to better mental health outcomes for older adults.

What Activities Promote Mental Health?

Try a few of these approaches to train your brain for mental fitness:

  • Practice meditation.
  • Start a journal.
  • Commit to healthy eating, and eat mindfully with a focus on nutrition.
  • Participate in brain pastimes like puzzles, crosswords and word games.
  • Acquire a new skill like learning a new language, technology, or art.
  • Expand the fun you have with a hobby by teaching it to someone else.
  • Volunteer for a cause that has personal meaning to you.
  • Try tai chi, yoga or other activities that promote a mind-body connection.

The lockdowns and isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic have put an additional strain on our mental health. Trying to stay abreast of CDC guidance while reducing your stress is not easy. There are ways you can stay healthy during COVID, including building your immune system, focusing on cleanliness, and following a healthy diet and exercise regimen. 

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