How to look after your 'mental fitness'

Your mental health needs constant and proactive attention, just like your physical health. So, if you don’t already, it’s time to think about taking your mind to the gym.

Written by Dr Addie Wootten

Let’s talk about mental health, and what it takes to boost mental wellbeing.

Before I get started, I’m going to jump right to the end. If you don’t read any further than this, the one key point to keep front and centre when you think about your mental health is - your mental health needs constant and proactive attention, just like your physical health. So, if you don’t already, it’s time to think about taking your mind to the gym.

We call this mental fitness.

This concept isn’t new. The World Health Organisation (WHO) in 2004 defined Mental Health as a state of well-being in which the individual realises their own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to contribute to their community. According to this definition, mental health is focused on wellness, not illness, living life to your fullest potential and thriving in all aspects of life. In fact, the WHO so strongly believe in the importance of mental health that they have clearly stated that “there can be no health without mental health”1.

These powerful words are worth considering.

How often do you stop and reflect on what helps you to be mentally healthy? And even more importantly, what helps you boost your mental wellbeing? What approaches do you have in place in your daily life to support your mental fitness?

Consider your mental health as a continuum. Much like your physical health, you will move up and down this continuum at different stages throughout your life and many factors will contribute. Just like your physical health can be improved through daily actions, there are many things you can do every day to support your overall mental health and stay in the thriving zone.

Mental fitness

There are many mental health skills that shape our mental wellbeing. Prof Richard Davidson and his team in the US have completed extensive work exploring this field and they have broken these skills down into four key areas2.

4 ways to boost your mental fitness

1. Awareness

Awareness refers to your ability to identify your emotions, thoughts and behaviours and to focus and concentrate. Awareness is fundamental to how you feel, how you connect with others and your ability to take actions to support your emotions (emotion regulation). For example, you can’t manage stress if you’re not aware that you’re feeling stressed. There are various strategies you can use to build your awareness skills, including mindfulness and meditation, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) or acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT). 

Things you can do daily:

  • Practice meditation
  • Take a mindful walk and really notice the things around you
  • Develop a gratitude routine - a good way to do this is as a family at the end of the day. The Families Program in the Smiling Mind app, supported by Medibank, can help you get started.

2. Connection

Connection refers to how you engage with others and navigate your social relationships. Connection is essential for good mental health and there are skills you can hone to support more positive connections and relationships in your life. Connection skills including gratitude, empathy and active listening alongside openness, curiosity and perspective taking, can help you learn to navigate differences between yourself and others. There are a range of strategies that can help you strengthen your connection skills, including writing in a gratitude journal, challenging yourself to meet and speak with people from backgrounds different to yours on a regular basis and reflecting on your experiences. 

Things you can do daily:

  • Practice deep listening - really focus on what the other person is saying when having a conversation and try not to get caught up in what you’re going to say next
  • Be curious - learn something new
  • Mindful cooking as a family - Slow down and savour the experience of cooking together as a family. You can get some guidance from the Families Program in the Smiling Mind app, supported by Medibank.

3. Insight

Insight refers to understanding how your emotions, thoughts, life situations and the environment are shaping your experiences. Insight helps us make connections between things. For example you are using your insight skills when you can recognise that your thinking patterns are impacting how you feel. For example, if you’re asked to make a speech or plan for public speaking, you can use insight to become aware of your tendency to be critical of yourself or predict a bad outcomes and the way this critical thought pattern impacts on your level of anxiety.

Things you can do daily:

  • Use a reflective journal to look for patterns in your thinking and identify how your thinking might impact your feelings and emotions.
  • Talk to someone - have an open conversation with someone close to you about whether they can see patterns in your behaviour that might be tripping you up.
  • Seek out a coach, mentor or counsellor - sometimes speaking with a professional can help you learn a lot about yourself. 

4. Purpose

Purpose refers to your ability to be aware of and connected to your aims and values in life. The ability to do this is critically important in supporting your mental wellbeing. Your values are intricately connected with your perceptions of yourself and help you to derive meaning from different elements in your life.  Identifying your values is often the first step. Making a regular practice of taking actions to align your values with your behaviours and ways of living will strengthen your sense of purpose. 

Things you can do daily:

  • Reflect on your personal values - if you haven’t done this before get started by writing down what you stand for as a person and what you value in life
  • Take time out during the day to reflect on whether your actions align with these values and gently remind yourself of your values if it doesn’t align
  • Focus on what makes you feel good. The Families Program in the Smiling Mind app, supported by Medibank, can help you with this.

These areas may seem complex but taking some of the actions suggested each day will help you develop your mental fitness and support you to maintain good mental health. No matter what your starting point is, everyone can take steps to improve their mental health. Your mental health is just as important as your physical health, make sure you create routines to nurture both. If you can find 10 minutes a day to build your mental health skills, you’ll start to see the benefits across all areas of your life. 


1 World Health Organisation, 2018. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/mental-health-strengthening-our-response

2 Dahl, et al., 2020. https://www.pnas.org/doi/full/10.1073/pnas.2014859117

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Written by Dr Addie Wootten

Dr Addie Wootten is a Clinical psychologist and CEO of Smiling Mind.

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