We’re almost two weeks into the new year. Gyms all over the world have been inundated with newcomers suddenly motivated to achieve their fitness goals that they started to neglect at the end of the year. I myself have been trying to get back into yoga and start bouldering again, with the help of Yoga with Adriene and (hopefully) my colleagues.
Still, regardless of whether people actually achieve their fitness goals — the joke is that people often don’t, of course — it’s seen as such a normal thing to create a plan for physical fitness and stick to it. Even people who can only manage one push up are aware on some level that regular exercise is necessary to keep our bodies working. Not quite so for mental health, where most of us believe we’re fine until we’re not, with little thought about how we got there.
Mental health is not seen as a skill that can build or deteriorate with time; it’s something you have or don’t. But since reading Mark Freeman’s book, The Mind Workout, I’ve often wondered — why aren’t there easy, accessible routines to follow for mental fitness?
For many of us, we don’t yet need therapeutic intervention, but we’re still declining in some ways. Why are we only encouraged to work on these skills when things are failing, and indeed even turned away because we’re not sick enough yet? That’s the equivalent of waiting until you have heart disease to start eating and exercising well. Prevention is far better, and far easier than curing.
Not to mention, with physical health, we recognise that there are so many routes you can take to get fit depending on your personality. Strength training, running, yoga, pilates, zumba, swimming, you name it. There’s no shame in prioritising one sport over another, because it’s all about your own interests and values. You’re not assumed to be immediately good at basketball if you play football — but the core elements of learning a new skill, sticking with it and adapting to new challenges are the same. I’d like learning about mental health to be the similar, where the focus is on our ability to live the way we want to, instead of on avoiding stuff we don’t like.
One of my personal favourite fitness plans is the Recommended Routine on /r/bodyweightfitness on reddit. It prioritises learning the foundations of certain skills and building those to a solid level before you move on to a higher level. You don’t do diamond push ups before you can do a supported push up, for example. Over time you increase the resistance needed to help you progress. I have been experimenting with such a system for building mental fitness, and am going to be writing more about it this year.
Below is my attempt to build such a schedule for myself. At this stage, it’s purely for myself and I’m sticking closely to the exercises used in the aforementioned Recommended Routine to guide me. The metaphors won’t always be 1:1, and I plan to refine this further as I go on.
(n.b. the ‘fearless activity’ refers to a challenge I’m doing from zenhabits.com)
In strength work, both pushing/pulling muscles need to be developed and including . It’s the same for mental health. Here I am defining pushing as ‘moving into’ value-based living or towards uncomfortable feelings. It’s developing the strength needed to act the way you want to. Some examples of tasks I’ve been doing:
- Working on compulsions in a certain area
- Working on a routine or habits in a certain area
- Testing ‘hypotheses’ or beliefs about doing something (e.g. ‘Can I go bouldering after work?’ ‘Can I do more than one social event in one day?’)
- Working on a particular skill such as assertiveness or catching urges
- Pushing into uncomfortable feelings
‘Pulling’ on the other hand, I’m calling a focus on openness, compassion, self care and non-judgment. Without these skills, pushing into values can become a compulsive activity; you’re going somewhere, but only to get there rather than to enjoy the journey. Examples of exercises:
- Practising non-judgment, or noticing judgements during a difficult activity
- Mindful listening (or any other activity)
- Loving-kindness meditation
- Doing something you love, just because you love it
A strong core is needed for balance and stability in all other exercise that you do. Without it you’ll be much more tired and limited in flexibility and pushing into more difficult exercises.
I’ve largely only been building my meditation practise in my ‘core work’ — building from 1 minute onwards, as I fell out of the habit. I might also define this as setting intentions for whatever I’m doing, periodically taking time to take stock of the direction I’m moving in, and making sure to review things when I’m going off track.
The recommended routine calls skill work ‘anything that requires a lot of practice to improve and doesn’t involve strength as a main component.’ I liken this to focused practise on a specific activity that one might find challenging, using the skills built elsewhere.
- Choosing a single activity to be mindful in — cooking, walking, conversations, working
- Stepping out of your comfort zone: doing something new that you wouldn’t usually do
There’s definitely some overlap here, and often times my work on, say, a ‘Push’ activity also counts as ‘Skill work’. I think that’s fine. The point of these categories is just to encourage regular practice, and to see how they contribute to an overall picture of health.
As I go on I’ll be refining this method. The activities I’m doing are not very beginner friendly and there’s not much clear progression from easy to hard. In the future, I’d love to create different plans for different experience levels. I particularly want to avoid the feeling of just doing these exercises for the sake of it, or to ‘tick it off the list’. That said, I think that is naturally avoided by picking exercises and tasks that are meaningful to me.
Regardless, so far I’ve found this kind of system really useful! It’s probably the act of identifying what I want to work on and setting an intention for it. I’ve already seen improvements in stuff like making eye contact, or having meaningful conversations where I don’t just make a joke to avoid being vulnerable.
I’ll keep checking in with my findings 🙂