There was a time when fitness was all about the physical body. But these days, fitness — or at least frequent use of the word fitness — has hitched to other dimensions of being human: the mental and emotional realms, to name two.
“Mental fitness is indeed a new trendy term,” says Inna Khazan
, a clinical psychologist and Harvard Medical School faculty
member who is board certified in biofeedback. “I think the reason it's trending now is because we are just now fully realizing the importance of emotional flexibility and resilience.”
Mental fitness refers to our ability to function in our environment, adapt to change, and respond to stress and challenges, Khazan says. The terms mental fitness and psychological fitness can be used interchangeably.
The terms mental fitness and emotional fitness (or emotional intelligence
be used interchangeably — though they're related, and emotional intelligence is part of mental fitness.
Emotional intelligence is about understanding our emotions and the emotions of others and being able to regulate our emotions, especially when it comes to dealing with others. “People with higher emotional intelligence tend to be more mentally fit,” Khazan says.
How to gauge your mental fitness
Evaluate how you manage unexpected change, difficult circumstances and emotionally intense situations.
“Do you find that you are able to rise to the challenge and figure out the best solution, or do you find yourself overwhelmed and reacting automatically in unhelpful ways?” Khazan says. “The answer to this question will give you some idea of how mentally fit you are.”
Heart rate variability:
Use an objective data-driven method to assess your nervous system.
“Heart rate variability
is a scientifically proven way to measure the flexibility and resilience of your nervous system,” Khazan says. “High heart rate variability tells us that you are able to respond to stress in helpful ways — that you are mentally fit. Low heart rate variability tells us that you may have trouble adjusting to the change or stressor.”
Heart rate variability (HRV), explained
When you take your pulse, you feel a small thump. Try it: Put two fingers against your inner wrist or high on your neck under one side of your jaw.
“Each one of those thumps is a heartbeat. You might count 60 to 80 of those beats in a minute, at neutral times,” Khazan says. “That’s your heart rate.” Your heart rate will remain fairly stable as long as your activity level remains about the same.
The variation in time between
your heartbeats is going to keep changing though. “As intervals between heartbeats get shorter, your heart rate speeds up; as intervals between heartbeats get longer, your heart slows down,” Khazan explains. “These accelerations and decelerations of your heart rate are heart rate variability.”
You can't measure heart rate variability on your own the way you can measure your heart rate. You need equipment such as an electrocardiogram machine or heart rate monitor.
How to improve your mental fitness
Condition your HRV with resonance frequency (RF) breathing.
that HRV training improves our ability to regulate our mental and physical functions, allowing us to better regulate our emotions, make decisions and solve problems under pressure, respond to sudden changes, and stay resilient to stress,” Khazan says.
Enter resonance frequency breathing. Breath drives your heart rate (always, not just during this exercise); when you inhale, your heart rate increases, and when you exhale your heart rate decreases.
RF maximally increases your heart rate as you inhale and maximally decreases your heart rate as you exhale. This creates “an optimal rate of breathing that maximizes your heart rate variability,” Khazan says, about four to seven breaths a minute for most people.
To do it, using comfortable breaths, inhale by expanding your lower abdomen, and then slowly and completely exhale through your nose or pursed lips. Optimal HRV
, an app that Khazan helped design, provides a guided framework to train heart rate variability.
“We need to practice RF breathing only during our practice times and before or during times of increased challenge,” Khazan says. “No need to breathe this way during everyday activities.”
Think of HRV training as a primer, similar to, say, following a weight-lifting regimen.
“As long as you get to the gym on a regular basis, you'll strengthen your physical abilities, and if a friend asks you to help them move a couch after you've been working out for a couple of months, it will be easier for you to lift that couch,” Khazan says. “With regular HRV training, it will be easier for your nervous system to respond to stress with more flexibility and resilience.”
Develop behavioral in-the-moment skills
“Noticing your emotions and pausing before responding is absolutely a useful skill,” Khazan says. “This skill is easier to implement with regular HRV training that strengthens the mechanisms underlying emotion regulation.”
Khazan created an acronym to help people remember a step-by-step approach: FLARE.
Journalist and longtime yoga instructor Mitra Malek writes and edits content related to wellness. She noticed that some of the breath-work she’s done for years is similar to resonance frequency breathing. She hopes it helped her mental fitness.
- Feel: Notice your emotions. “This is what tells you that the situation needs your attention,” Khazan says.
- Label: Place a short nonjudgmental label on your emotions. For example: discomfort, tension, uncertainty, worry. This reroutes the neurological pathway away from fight-or-flight reaction and toward a thoughtful intentional response.
- Allow: Allow your emotions to be as they are instead of trying to control or change them. This lets you save mental energy for the next step.
- Response: Ask yourself what's in your best interest in the situation you're facing, and then choose an intentional action that is under your control.
- Expand awareness: Widen your focus from the narrow view of the problem being all of your experience to the problem being part of your experience. This helps diminish the intensity of your emotion and gives you space to implement your chosen response.