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Mental fitness: 6 easy ways to exercise the mind

The brain may not be a muscle, but that doesn’t mean you can’t exercise it! The truth is, many of us fall into negative thinking patterns that we simply can’t escape —or worse, the negativity becomes our new...

The brain may not be a muscle, but that doesn’t mean you can’t exercise it! The truth is, many of us fall into negative thinking patterns that we simply can’t escape —or worse, the negativity becomes our new norm, and we begin to believe that this is just the way life is.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Sure, life can be hard. There are ebbs and flows, failures and victories. But if you spend more time feeling bad than good, it’s time to make a change.

The good news is, making a positive change can be as simple as focusing on our mental fitness.

Mental fitness — what’s that?

Just like physical fitness, mental fitness involves commitment, practice and repetition. And while you may not be training for a marathon, you’re essentially training your brain to think in new and different ways.

From boosting your mood to your memory, the benefits are many. Exercising our mental muscles help us better handle emotions and cope with stress (skills we aren’t taught in school). It also helps build resilience as we face and overcome life’s challenges and hardships. Just as importantly, it can help us improve our relationships with our loved ones and ourselves.

6 easy ways to exercise the mind

Building those mental muscles will help you develop a very important skill called self-regulation, and it’s easier than you think. Some of our favorites are listed below:

1. Breathing exercises. Did you know that when we’re feeling stressed, our body reacts in the same way it would if we were in real, physical danger? That’s the fight-or-flight response, and it causes our cortisol levels to go up. Luckily, the antidote is simple: breathing. Focusing on our breath quiets those figurative alarm bells, reminding us that we’re physically okay. Transform “danger” into zen with his simple breathing exercise.

2. Visualization. With this exercise, you don’t need to book a flight or pack your bags to go to your “happy place.” You simply need to close your eyes and picture a place or moment that makes you feel good (e.g., sunset at the ocean). This helps activate the neurons living in what we’re going to dub the ‘glass half full’ side of your brain — the side that also happens to be “non-dominant” and therefore in need of more exercise! So the more opportunities for those neural structures to think positive, the better. Plus, it’s a short and sweet brain exercise that can help calm you down when you’re feeling stressed.

3. Progressive muscle relaxation. Teach your brain to pay attention to your body by taking a few moments to focus on your (physical) muscles. For this exercise, you simply need to gradually and intentionally tense and relax different muscle groups, one at a time. Take (mental) note of what how it feels. What sensation(s) are you experiencing as you let your muscles relax?

4. Mindfulness moments. In the age of digital devices, we need more practice being present. Actively experiencing a moment means using our five senses to see, hear, smell, taste and feel a particular moment — an effective grounding technique when feeling stressed and a great mindfulness exercise to train your brain.

5. Guided meditations. Just like a workout can change the structure of your body, meditation has been found to change the structure of the brain, specifically how it relates to mood. So this is one exercise not to leave out of your mental fitness routine. The good news is, guided meditations make it easy… and even 5 minutes will do. 

6. Self-compassion exercises. If your friend messed up on the job, we’re going to bet that you wouldn’t focus on their failure, but instead highlight the positive. So why are you always so hard on yourself? Stop being your own worst critic and start practicing a bit of self-compassion! It may not be easy, but… practice makes perfect, right? Want to learn a radically new way of relating to [yourself]? Start with these exercises.

What are you waiting for? Get to it and start exercising those mental muscles. Your emotions will thank you.

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