New Year's resolutions that seek to improve our fitness can have a hugely beneficial impact on our health and wellbeing. However, we tend to prioritise our physical fitness over our mental fitness, and as such, many of us are missing the opportunities and benefits that good mental fitness can bring.
What is mental fitness and why set goals for it?
Mental fitness is the ability of each one of us to reach our full potential, be true to ourselves and lead a life of meaning and value, all while withstanding the challenges we face along the way.
If we ask ourselves what physical fitness is, we’re usually able answer with some knowledge. We also usually know the steps we can take to promote our physical fitness, such as good nutrition, exercise or strength training.
When we look at our mental fitness, the same questions can be harder to answer. With mental health we often automatically go to the experiences of mental ill health, and start to think about stress, low mood or anxiety, rather than how it might feel to be mentally fit. It can also seem harder to know where to start when it comes to planning a mental fitness regime that works for you.
Working on your mental fitness involves cultivating an awareness of how you think, behave and feel. As you grow in self-awareness and understanding, you can start to change unhelpful thoughts and behaviours by practising more helpful habits.
How to plan a mental fitness programme
Many people start building a physical training regime when they want to improve their physical fitness, so why not plan a mental fitness regime too?
The New Year provides us with the opportunity for a new beginning, a chance to start afresh, letting go of our unhelpful, and self-limiting, behaviours or beliefs about the past and about ourselves.
A good starting point is to identify your healthy coping techniques. These act as a strong foundation for building your mental fitness. Here are some examples:
1. Be kind to yourself
Self-kindness is very important for your mental wellbeing and can act as a powerful antidote to many mental health difficulties.
You spend more time with yourself than anyone else and how you relate to yourself has a huge impact on how you feel. So be kind to yourself by practising talking to yourself with understanding and compassion.
Research shows that being encouraging and kind to yourself is more likely to help you achieve your goals than being harsh and critical with yourself. You can read more advice in our guide to self-kindness and compassion.
2. Think about your thinking
It isn’t always events or situations that upset us or lead us to feel difficult emotions. It’s often the way we think about those things.
Our thinking in any situation can be helpful or unhelpful, and this will have a big influence on how we feel.
We often treat our thoughts as if they are facts, but just because you think something, doesn’t make it true. If something feels scary, it doesn’t always mean something bad will happen.
When you notice a change in your mood, ask yourself: What was I thinking about just before that? Was the thought helpful or unhelpful? Is there a different perspective I could take which is more helpful? Focus on your strengths and achievements rather than your flaws.
3. Stay connected
Relationships are so important for our mental health. Think about ways to make sure you keep in touch with friends and family, especially if you’re feeling low or unmotivated. You should especially reach out to those who make you feel positive and energised.
Think about joining community groups around shared interests. This can make it easier to develop meaningful relationships where we feel a sense of belonging an acceptance. Network, share resources and look out for each other. Knowing you have each other’s backs can be a huge comfort.
If you're going through something, reach out and talk to someone you trust. Speaking to people who help you rationalise the situation, or have a calming influence, can help you work through any worries or difficult emotions.
4. Take time out for self-care
It can be easy to spend time looking out for and supporting others. But it’s also important that you take enough time out to support yourself.
You should think of self-care as a key priority. The same way you need to put your own oxygen mask on first on an aeroplane before your help others, you’ll be much better able to support those around you if you take care of yourself first. You can’t pour from an empty cup.
You don't need to spend several uninterrupted hours a day on yourself to make time for self-care. Finding moments throughout the day can also work.
Self-care can also help you to stay in the moment. We often experience emotional distress when our minds are in the past (ruminating over previous events), or in the future (worrying about things that might happen). Staying in the present moment can help you feel grounded.
5. Recognise the link between mental and physical fitness
There is a strong interconnected link between mental and physical fitness. Keeping active can improve your physical wellbeing, but it can also help you maintain a healthy mind. People who exercise regularly have better mental health and lower rates of mental ill health.
Exercise can also help relieve feelings of stress by releasing anxiety-reducing chemicals and giving you a mood-lifting dopamine spike.
The greatest gains are often seen in those who go from doing nothing to doing something. You don’t have to be an athlete, everything you do counts. Even 5–10 minutes of brisk walking can increase your mental alertness and lift your mood.
6. Find out what works for you
If you don’t enjoy running, forcing yourself to pound the pavements every day may support physical goals, but not necessarily your mental fitness goals.
The greatest benefits are often seen in those who go from doing nothing to doing something. You don’t have to be an athlete, everything you do counts. Even a short burst of 5–10 minutes of brisk walking can increase your mental alertness and lift your mood.
Give different things a go to work out what activities give you the best mental boost. Why not try our free 5-minute exercises on Nuffield Health 24/7? Start small, but remember to stick to it.
The DREAM framework
Once you've got the foundations of healthy mental habits in place, you can use the DREAM framework as a guide for developing new mental fitness goals. It provides the tools for self-reflection and recognition:
- Direction: Have goals to look forward to
- Resilience: Adapt to challenges and find ways to bounce back
- Emotions: Listen to your emotions and understand what they are trying to tell you
- Acceptance: Get to know and love your authentic self and be comfortable with who you are
- Meaning: Live in alignment with your meaning and purpose and be part of something bigger.
Any type of goal can be a journey – and not always the smoothest one! Having an awareness of the DREAM framework will help to avoid completely giving up or remaining stagnant, as it not only allows you to recognise the ‘here and now’, but also gives you an overview of what the bigger picture is to keep you on track.
Mental health goals
When starting to think about your mental fitness goals, it can be really motivating to have a clear idea of what you are working towards.
It’s important to set achievable goals that align with your values and greater sense of purpose.
If you’re new to setting mental health-related goals, here are some tips and examples that you can incorporate into your day-to-day life:
Take time out to plan
Rather than having just one giant goal, why not break it down into small, achievable milestones? At the start of the year, have a goal in mind before breaking this down into a monthly goals. At the beginning of each month you could even set weekly goals. This is a great way to reflect and review the previous month and plan the month ahead.
Keep a thought journal each day
This will help you to become aware of your inner thought process, as well as notice and work with unhelpful thoughts.
Set yourself daily positive affirmations
Start your day with an intention like ‘I am enough’ or ‘My mental health is a priority’ – you can find lots of inspiration for these online and on dedicated apps.
Acknowledge your personal milestones
It’s all well and good setting goals, but make sure you take time to recognise and celebrate when these have been achieved. Reflect on how they happened, how they made you feel and how you can now develop from these (if you so desire!).
How you feel tomorrow starts today
To find out more, visit our Mental Health hub, which offers a wealth of advice and resources to help you develop your mental fitness.
Sometimes there is only so much we can do on our own, so if you need a helping hand, we offer a range of mental health support.
And if you’d like to start supporting your mental fitness with physical activity, search for your local Nuffield Health Fitness and Wellbeing centre.
Last updated Thursday 6 April 2023
First published on Friday 30 October 2020