Mental Fitness Over Mental Health: A Rhetorical Shift

Published: Apr 3, 2023  |  

Executive Editor

Image of a brain with muscles

Yes, you read the title right: it’s time we changed our perspective and the narrative around our own mental health—or should I say, mental fitness. Admittedly, these thoughts don’t originate from me; they are the words of inspirational speaker and author Simon Sinek

Those of you who are aware of Simon’s work—be it through TED talks, podcasts, his books, or viral social media clips—might have the same outlook on him as I do. I’m not afraid to share with you that I hang onto every word that comes out of that man’s mouth. 

During a recent appearance on Steven Bartlett’s Diary of A CEO podcast, Simon touched on several subjects, including dating, loneliness, and, of course, mental health. 

I’ve watched and listened to several podcasts from Steven Bartlett, but when Simon is on, it’s a different story. I have to tune in: I share moments of it with friends, I recommend it to them, I practically shove it down their throats. I even spoke about this particular podcast during an internal meeting!

It feels like I constantly have lightbulb moments when Simon talks. Sometimes, he’ll say something and I’ll have my mind blown from the simplest of observations. A bit like Baz Luhrmann’s “Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen)”—possibly my favorite song of all time, something Nikki Muller covered a few weeks back. I have the lyrics of it framed in my living room, I’ll listen to it if I’m having an off day and it’ll perk me right up. 

Point being, that song and Simon are both very philosophical. How often do you spend being philosophical? How often do you get the time to sit back and reflect? Not on your day, not something you did or said, but reflect on life, your life, how you act, why you act in that way, your outlook, why your outlook is the way it is and do you even get to question if that’s right or wrong? 

Of course you don’t. That’s why people like Simon exist. To tell us, to suggest things, to expand our minds. 

(I’m aware this is in danger of becoming a Simon Sinek love-in, but I thought it’s important to set the scene for those who aren’t in the know.)

Returning to the podcast, I had one of those “mind blown” moments when Simon was talking about psychological wellness. His words:

“I like to call it mental fitness, rather than mental health. I’m always working on my mental fitness.”

A small sentence and something of a wider conversation, but I tell you what, it’s a powerful statement isn’t it? I paused the podcast at that very second and spent a few minutes looking out of the window on the train as I tried to digest what he had just said. One of those lightbulb moments I mentioned before, thinking “bloody hell, he’s right.”

What is mental fitness?

A person’s mental fitness indicates their ability to think clearly and to make decisions efficiently and effectively. A parallel can be drawn with physical fitness, which relates to the body’s ability to function.

The conversation developed and some comparisons were shared. You go to the gym or exercise to work on your physical fitness. The term, the phrasing and the way we perceive our own physical fitness can be the complete opposite to mental health—and the stigma that comes with it. 

We’re all very quick to tell friends when we’ve joined a gym, been for a long walk or have done anything remotely active to showcase we’re working on ourselves. Particularly those who have social media. 

Have you really been to the gym if you don’t needlessly share it on Instagram? Is the real reason people share that to boost their mental health as they seek attention from their peers? Do they not get attention from interacting with humans they need to look for it?

I digress. The point is: going to the gym and exercise is seen as a huge positive. It can be inspiring. Not just to your friends and family, but also to yourself. You get a real feel-good factor out of it. You’re working on you.

However, mental health isn’t the same—or at least it’s not viewed as the same. You’re in a terrible mood, you’re down, you’re sad, you’re not 100%, therefore “you’re struggling with your mental health.” It’s perceived that there’s something majorly wrong with you. Friends want to fix you, make you better, and to sort it as soon as possible. 

But to Simon’s point, having those feelings means you are human: it’s a good thing. It doesn’t mean you’re anything less or that things can’t improve. 

We have bad days at the gym. Ones where no matter how much or how well you prepared you just aren’t feeling it. You try your best but your body won’t allow it. You call it “one of those days” and you move on. 

Do you not have that in your mind too? You can’t concentrate, you can’t get into the swing of work, but you never put it down to “one of those days.” You battle with yourself to sort it out and get back on track.

You pull a muscle, it hurts, you take some time to recover. Your friend doesn’t come to your house and try and fix it for you. That’s on your body. It heals and you go again. That’s down to you and your physical fitness. You are trained to not worry about it, take the time to see out the process until you’re back at it. You make the time for it.

Why can’t or don’t we apply the same method and perspective to our mental fitness?

It’s seen as a huge negative if you aren’t 100% yourself. There must be something wrong with you, you must be struggling, you must seek help. Not something which is seen as a constant work in progress. Maybe the desire to be 100% mentally fit is part of the issue: we’re always striving for perfection where it might not exist.

I’m not 100% physically fit, are you? I mean fully ripped to the core, perfect eyesight, a full head of hair, no imperfections whatsoever. Anyway, less about me… I jest, but we have what feels a natural acceptance of physical imperfections and the complete opposite regarding to mental ones. 

What are the benefits of mental fitness? Or at least using that wording for it. The physiological impact of merely rewording the phrase and changing your outlook could potentially shift your whole mentality and how others look at it. That’s huge.

Simon’s words—which I implore you to watch or listen to—have completely changed my perspective on my own mental fitness. Do you set some time aside to take care of your mental fitness like you would a physical setback? Why don’t you? Why are they treated differently? And are you working as actively to improve your mental fitness as you would your physical fitness?

When you get a cold where you feel like you’ve been hit by a truck, you accept you can’t fight it. You have to ride it out and get better, knowing that soon, you’ll perk up. That your physical fitness has its ups and downs. 

No one is in perfect shape, 100% of the time—physically or mentally, and that’s ok. Giving yourself time to recover when you need it—and setting aside time to work on your mental fitness, too—is something we all could benefit from in the long run.

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