A few days ago, I was walking though the gym on my way to spin class when a flyer caught my attention. It was an article on mental fitness. Being a counselor, my first thought was that the term “mental fitness” must refer to one’s emotionally stability and sense of reality. Because I work primarily with kids and families, the issue of mental decline doesn’t often come up so I didn’t immediately consider mental fitness in the broader sense. As I read the article, I learned that mental fitness is more than just emotional stability. Mental fitness actually refers to the use of intentional mental exercise to help stave off mental decline and strengthen memory, concentration and information processing. As we age, one of the greatest fears we have is losing our mental capabilities. I started thinking about the concept of fitness and the mind-body connection. I had to wonder, if we are nurturing our physical or “body” fitness, doesn’t it make sense to also nurture our mental or “mind” fitness? Is it possible to stave off mental decline?
The answer seems to be a resounding YES! Recent findings in the study of memory and mental fitness suggest that there are things we can do to delay or discourage the loss of mental functioning. Puzzles, brain teasers and games quickly come to mind. These tasks are good exercise but challenge can come from so many sources; it is so much more than doing the Sunday crossword puzzle in ink (although that is a daunting challenge for me). Challenging activities stimulate and strengthen brain function. One way to challenge our brain is to try something new. Learn to play an instrument, learn a new language or try a new hobby. Unfamiliar situations challenge the brain to work a little harder. For example, try brushing your teeth with your left hand if you are right-handed. The brain requires nurturing and nourishment to support optimum functioning. Minimizing stress, eating a healthy diet and staying physically active have all been shown to support mental fitness. I even found a strategy to help me keep up with my keys! Actively processing what we want to remember using imagery or mnemonics requires more complex brain activity and strengthens mental functioning. By creating a mental snapshot or verbalizing out loud where my keys are, my brain is more likely to recall their location. These strategies are like mental gymnastics that can keep our brains in peak condition. If you’d like to learn more, check out one of the many on-line resources or check out your local bookstore.