The Importance of Mental Fitness
Does Not Receive the Attention It Deserves
When clients see me as a dietitian, they are (for the most part) ready and willing to do something about their physical health. Most would agree that healthy eating habits and regular exercise are only part of the equation and that other issues would need to be addressed as well, such as stress management and sound sleeping habits. However, most are not as much aware of the importance of their mental health for their overall well-being. I’m not talking about “mental health” as opposed to mental illness. Therefore, a better term for what I’m trying to say would be “mental fitness.”
While the importance of physical health and fitness is commonly acknowledged and well communicated to the public, there is not yet enough attention being paid to the importance of mental fitness, not even by the medical profession. This is no coincidence.
Traditionally, the mind and the body have often been treated as two separate entities, each belonging to radically different realms. In this view, the body is seen as a material thing, which inevitably ages over time and eventually succumbs to mortality. By contrast, it is believed that the mind does not deteriorate in the same way. On the contrary, old age is believed to provide us with experience, knowledge and wisdom.
One body – one mind
Of course, today we know much more about the interconnectedness between the mind and the body. Clinical studies have shown that physical fitness impacts our mental capabilities as well. Newsweek magazine has recently published several articles on the subject. It states that a “rapidly growing movement in science [is] showing that exercise can make people smarter” and that exercising can coax “the human brain into growing new nerve cells, a process that for decades had been thought impossible, simply by putting subjects on a three-month aerobic workout regimen.”
One connection is obvious: Exercise increases the blood flow to the brain and the additional oxygen stimulates the brain cells. What’s new is that scientists assumed that the brain could not make new nerve cells once they were lost. This assumption is no longer valid, and there is sufficient evidence now that genuine “neurogenesis” can be achieved by physical exercise.
Regular trips to the gym, however, can only be part of the story. How about the notion that an active brain functions better than a “lazy” one? If the mind is not stimulated, it loses strength regardless of our physical condition. And how can we stay mentally fit when we get older and our physical capacities inevitably decline? For overall good health, it is not sufficient to feed and exercise our body, we need to nurture our mind as well.
Avoid junk food for the body and the mind
So, what would a work-out regimen for the mind look like? As a dietitian I suggest that you start by improving your “diet” – for your mind that is. Examine what you put in your mind that is unhealthy. As with any health-conscious diet, you want to avoid junk and focus on good nutrition.
Of course, that is not an easy task. In this day and age, we are constantly exposed to news, messages and advertisement. There is this tremendous noise level we seem unable to escape. The switch-off buttons may not always be easy to find.
Learning instead of entertainment
To stimulate the mind, it is not sufficient to watch TV or browse the Internet – not even quality programs or the news. Your mind wants more than being entertained. Thankfully, there are more challenging things to do.
Here are just a few ideas I recommend: If you are so inclined, learn a foreign language. It’s never too late for that. I’m trying to learn Swahili, the language of East Africa – at the age of seventy. Read constantly but be discriminating about your literary choices. Write often, if only a diary or letters to friends and family. Travel to other countries as much as your time and finances allow you to do so. It’s a great investment in the quality of your life. Join Toastmasters, or any other clubs of its kind, if you enjoy (or are afraid of) public speaking.
No matter what you eventually end up doing, always keep up your curiosity and hunger for knowledge. There is such a thing as intellectual poverty and it is a terrible condition to suffer.