Mental fitness is a key component in a person’s pursuit to health, happiness, and wholeness. The overlooked need to train the brain for mental fitness has compelling and motivating benefits. Physical fitness is obtained with a partnership with nutritional practices. It is no different with mental fitness. Nutrition is an aspect that is essential in mental fitness. Although the brain and its mental capacities are extremely complex, it can be simply fun and relaxing to practice activities that will promote mental fitness. (Dacher, 2006)
The benefits of mental fitness are prosperous health as a whole person. This incorporates the mind, body, and spirit. Mental training can change the cognitive process from ordinary to exceptional. A person will be internally filled with peacefulness, joy, openness, serenity, loving-kindness, happiness as they develop mental fitness. Observations have also shown mental fitness reduces anger, hatred, fear, worry, confusion, and doubt. With consistent practice, mental fitness develops the ability to go beyond coping with life stressors reaching a high level of mental integration. High levels of compassion developed from mental fitness produce an acute physical awareness that gives the ability to always be ready for action to help others and relieve suffering. Because the body is not being bombarded with high levels of stress hormones that can weaken the body physically causing cardiovascular disease and immune deficiencies, a person will be physically healthier and able to obtain and maintain a prosperous physical health. (Dacher, 2006)
Antoine Lutz and his research group from the University of Wisconsin conducted a study with mental Olympians known as contemplative scholars. Gamma brain waves which are associated with producing levels of intelligence, memory, compassion, self-control, increased perception of reality, and happiness (Brain Waves, n.d.) were measured on the contemplative scholars as they were asked to produce a mental state of compassion. Their gamma brain waves were significantly higher and more synchronized than the control group who were not involved in contemplative practice. Furthermore, the contemplative scholars started with higher gamma waves which suggest that long-term changes as well as the obvious short-term cognitive changes can occur with mental fitness. (Dacher, 2006)Can mental fitness change our natural temperament and disposition towards coping with stress? Dr. Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin conducted testing that shows we are indeed born with a disposition towards pessimism or optimism. However, he also conducted a study using some of the employees of a biotechnology firm. The purpose of the study was to observe the affects of stress management and relaxation techniques on emotion levels, anxiety levels, brain activity, and immune system health. This first group was started with a flu vaccine and immediately began a course on stress management and relaxation. The second group was given the flu vaccine but had to wait until the first group finished the training course. The first group showed immediate reduction in negative stress responses and a healthier immune response to the flu vaccination; and continued to show a more optimistic response to stressors four months after the course. This study shows that the mind can be re-trained and be “transformed from the ordinary to the exceptional.” (Dacher, 2006) A type of spiritual focus is forgiveness. Forgiveness is essential in reaching optimal physical and mental fitness. In a randomized control study by Frederic Luskin and his colleagues, a large group of volunteers with unresolved interpersonal hurt participated. Luskin states that those randomly selected to receive training in the steps of forgiveness showed “significant improvement in hurt, state and trait anger and optimism, and reported significantly less stress”. Physical effects of stress also showed significant reduction. In an 18-week follow up, participants continued to show significant improvement of forgiveness towards their offenders compared with the control group. (Schlitz, Amorok, Micozzi, 2005)
How is mental fitness achieved? The basic components of mental fitness are adequate sleep, physical activity, positive self talk to promote self-esteem, visualizing yourself having achieved goals, nutrition, and relaxation which can be obtained through contemplative practices. (Lazarus, 2011). The most important component of mental fitness is persistence and practice.
Changing nutritional habits is not always easy to do. However, adding brain enhancing vitamin and mineral supplements, and eating brain enhancing foods can make a big difference in mental fitness and the quality of the benefits from mental fitness. Important nutritional needs of the brain are B-complex vitamins, carbohydrates, fiber, antioxidants such as vitamins C and E, and Omega fatty acids. (Marano, 2011)
B-complex vitamins contribute to lower homocysteine levels. High homocysteine levels are associated with strokes and Alzheimer’s disease. Low levels of B6, B12, and folic acid are associated with cognitive decline and depression. B-complex vitamins help in coping with stress, improved mood and mental well-being, and increased mental processing during intense mental performance. They help protect against fatigue during periods requiring concentrated attention. Foods high in B vitamins are liver, lentils, pinto beans, asparagus, spinach, bananas, and potatoes. B12 is found only in meats and fish. (Marano, 2011)
Reducing oxidative stress and inflammation also promotes a healthy brain. Antioxidant foods include blueberries, blackberries, pomegranates, strawberries, purple grapes, and other foods high in flavonoid phytochemicals. Walnuts, almonds, and pecans provide the brain with essential oils which are associated with reducing inflammation at the cellular level. Combining the antioxidant foods with the essential oils foods can work synergistically together to provide a super food for the brain such as blueberries with walnuts, avocados, or coconut oil. Other important spices and herbs are leafy greens high in folic acid which preserves memory function, rosemary when used as a tea or to spice foods has also shown to promote health memory function, and zinc is also important in preventing degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s. (Marano, 2008)
Habits that deplete mental fitness are smoking, drinking caffeine, refined sugar, fructose corn syrup, processed foods, and fast foods.
Two activities that can be adopted to learn contemplative practice are Loving-Kindness and the Subtle Mind. Start with the Loving-Kindness activity and practice it twice a day for one week. Move on to the Subtle Mind activity and practice it twice a day, extending it to become part of your lifestyle. (Dacher, 2006)
The Loving-Kindness activity promotes a shift in focus from self to others. This shift develops compassion which, as discussed earlier is an essential skill to achieve mental fitness. The goal is to complete the entire exercise which can take approximately 15 minutes. However, if needed, start with progressive steps of five minute increasing intervals. 1. To help in visualizing loving-kindness, picture someone in your mind that you hold an abundance of loving-kindness. Fully experience the feelings by opening your heart and letting the loving-kindness felt for this person completely envelope your being. 2. Turn these feelings toward yourself. Start with your body, accepting every part, every aspect; flooding yourself both physically and mentally with the loving-kindness. Release all holdings and cut all ties that prevent complete freedom in loving and being kind to yourself.3. Embrace your inner mind, specifically the peace, stillness, and gentleness that now abides in your spirit and soul. Let the loving-kindness permeate your mind, body, and soul.4. You are precious and uniquely created. Embrace yourself as you are, with complete and unconditional loving-kindness. Take time now to let this self love completely permeate your body to the cellular level.5. Picture a loved one who is suffering. As you breathe in, all their suffering will follow the breath and be dissolved in your heart. On the out breath, health, happiness, and wholeness will indwell this loved one and permeate every cell in their being. You can picture this as being an instrument in God’s hands as you do this step by the Father’s hand, through the Holy Spirit, in the name of Jesus Christ. This is a time to listen for inspiration in how you can help this loved one. 6. Now expand the taking and giving to include those beyond immediate loved ones to acquaintances and strangers.7. Enlarge the circle of taking and giving to include your enemies. Continue this step to the end of your practice time. (Mathew 5:43-44, love your enemies)It is important to reach the goal of deeply feeling this loving-kindness, to expel the self-centeredness, and to quiet your mind. Take time to reflect on the practice noting your feelings and your current state of mind. Write down any notes that come to mind. Quietly return to your normal activities. Practice the Loving-Kindness exercise twice daily for one week. (Dacher, 2006)
After practicing the Loving-Kindness exercise for one week, replace it with the Subtle Mind practice which will take you through three phases of consciousness; witnessing mind consciousness, calm-abiding consciousness, and unity consciousness. Each phase further develops a clear, quiet, peaceful mind that can bring a state of pure awareness essential to holistic health.1. Using belly breathing as a focal point, take ten deep breaths. Then breath comfortably as you ease into a relaxing state of being while focusing on your breathing.2. As distractions enter your mind, notice them but let them pass by and then return to focusing on breathing. Forcing your mind to come back to focusing on the breathing after each distraction is essential in taming the chattering mind. As your mind learns to quiet, you can gently ease up on focusing on the breathing and start objectively witnessing your mental activity as opposed to being controlled by the mental activity. Practice this step for several minutes.This step is enlightening moment into how the mental activity involuntarily pulls you toward random thoughts. Observe the random thoughts and then let them move on. Disallow any attachment or holding on, let them drift by. You are becoming aware of the witnessing mind, a state of objective observing how the mind works. 3. Be patient during the initial training; always come back to the focus of breathing and then observation of your calming mind. During this phase of calm-abiding consciousness it is the goal to balance the intensity of focusing on your breathing and the relaxation of the chattering mind. You want to be focused enough on the breathing to keep the mind from grasping on random thoughts but loose enough to allow the mind to ease tension. 4. Eventually, with effort and practice, the still mind becomes the focus, not the breathing. At this shift in focus, unity consciousness, observe how you feel. Think abstractive and observe the qualities of the quiet mind. Explore it; observe how it relates to you as you are now. At first, this may only last a moment but practice will help your experience grow and mature. The goal is to look inward, know your inner self, see the quality of the inner essence and be assured it is always there.As you finish your exercise, slowly return to the consciousness of the room. Reflect on the experience; allow time for inspiration and vision. Write notes in a journal of your experience. (Dacher, 2006)
Including mental fitness in your pursuit for health will add extraordinary prosperous health which includes happiness, and wholeness.
Make it part of your lifestyle</li></li></ul><li>Loving-kindness activity<br />Picture in your mind someone you hold an abundance of loving-kindness<br />Transfer loving-kindness feeling to yourself<br />Embrace your inner mind<br />Embrace yourself with complete and unconditional loving-kindness<br />Picture a loved one who is suffering, drawing out their suffering and filling them with health, happiness, and wholeness<br />Expand visualization to acquaintances and strangers<br />Enlarge circle to include enemies<br />Quietly return, reflect, be aware of your feelings, journal<br />
Subtle mind activity<br />Focus on breathing<br />As distracting, random thoughts interrupt your concentration, let them pass by and re-focus on breathing<br />Objectively witness your mental activity<br />Always come back to focus of breathing and observe your calmer mind<br />As the mind becomes calmer, there will be a shift in focus from the breathing to the still mind<br />This may be short at first, but observe how the still mind feels; explore its qualities, the feelings, and questions it may present<br />Look inward to the inner self<br />Quietly return to normal consciousness, reflect, and journal<br />
References<br />(n.d.) Brain Waves. Brain Waves. Retrieved from http://www.brainwavesblog.com/gamma-brain-waves-information/<br />Dacher, E. (2006) Integral Health: The Path to Human Flourishing. Laguna Beach, CA: Basic Health Publications, Inc.<br />Lazarus, PhD, C. (2011) Three Keys to Optimum Mental Fitness: How to Exercise Your Psychological Muscles. Psychology Today. Retrieved from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/think-well/201105/three-keys-optimum-mental-fitness<br />Marano, H. E. (2011) Keen Cuisine: The Bs Get an A. Psychology Today. Retrieved from http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/201103/keen-cuisine-the-bs-get<br />Marano, D. (2008, reviewed 2011) Nature’s Bounty: The Smartest Food. Psychology Today. Retrieved from http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200805/natures-bounty-the-smartest-food<br />Schlitz, M., Amorok, T., Micozzi, M. (2005) Consciousness and Healing: Integral Approaches to Mind-Body Medicine. St. Louis, MO: Elsevier Churchill Livingstone<br />