Mental Fitness for Integral Health
Integral health is an approach that encompasses all aspects of the human existence: the mind, the spirit, and the body. Mental fitness training is one way to strengthen and connect these aspects to achieve the ultimate goal of integral healing which is a state of health, happiness, and wholeness (Dacher, 2006). Various research studies have been performed to explore and prove the beneficial effects of mental fitness on physical and spiritual wellbeing. A sample of these research projects include programs such as Mental Fitness for Life, the Lifestyle Heart Trial, and the Stanford Forgiveness Project. Once it is apparent why mental fitness is important, then there is the matter of how to achieve it. There are many exercises and activities that can foster mental development, two of which include yoga asanas like child’s pose and mindfulness meditation. Developing the mind, just like the body, takes practice and dedication to achieve results; though in due time that hard work will pay off as mental fitness leads to flourishing of the mind, spirit, and body (Dacher, 2006).
Benefits of Mental Fitness
Mental fitness is a key factor in the promotion of wellbeing. There are many ways that fostering mental fitness can affect not only the mind and spirit, but the body as well. Strengthening mental fitness has also shown to increase the efficiency of the brain and mental functions such as attention, memory, perception, imagery, and organization. Through a sustained mental workout one can learn to replace their negative thoughts and actions with positive ones. Over time with mental workouts individuals will get to known themselves on a deeper level, discover an interconnectedness with the world around them, and experience a fully developed life (Dacher, 2006).
All of this dedication to toning mental fitness will also bring one to uncover their inner healing resources, the resources that have been there all along but underutilized. Now that these resources have been made available through mental training, individuals are more able to handle their emotions, feelings, thoughts, and actions. With this capability mental fitness provides the benefit of resistance to both mental distress and physical disease (Dacher, 2006).
Study 1: Mental Fitness for Life
Mental Fitness for Life was a research study designed around the idea that learning could have a positive effect on health outcomes. The study featured an 8-week series of workshops on goal setting, critical thinking, creativity, positive mental attitude, learning, memory, and speaking the mind. Participants of the study were in the 50 and above age range, with various education and background levels. Information was gathered before and after the 8-week period to assess their mental fitness through three tests: The CT Mental Fitness Self-Assessment , Rosenberg’s Self-esteem Scale, and The Centre for Epidemiological Studies Scale for Depression (Cusack, Thompson, & Rogers, 2003).
A significant effect on mental health was found at the conclusion of the study as a result of the 8-week program. Participants showed improvements in vitality, energy, self-confidence, self-esteem, and optimism. They were also found to be more productive members of their families and within the community. The researchers call for continuing studies on the potential of mental fitness activities as an alternative and/or supplement to physical fitness activities to improve the health and livelihood of older adults (Cusack, Thompson, & Rogers, 2003).
Study 2: The Lifestyle Heart Trial
The Lifestyle Heart Trial was a research project conducted by Dr. Dean Ornish and colleagues, from 1986-1992, that was later published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Study participants included 48 patients with varying levels of coronary heart disease that were randomly assigned to either a control group receiving typical care or an experimental group that would partake in a lifestyle intervention program. The lifestyle intervention program consisted of diet, exercise, stress management, smoking cessation, and group psychosocial support components (Ornish et al, 1998).
After the first year of the study, participants in the experimental group had lowered their cholesterol levels by 37.2% and their frequency of angina episodes by an impressive 91%. After five years these participants exhibited regression of coronary atherosclerosis and fewer incidence of cardiac events as opposed to their control group peers whose conditions had progressively worsened. Significance of improvement in health were directly correlated with motivation and adherence to the lifestyle changes program (Ornish et al, 1998).
Study 3: The Stanford Forgiveness Project
Frederic Luskin directed the Stanford Forgiveness Project to explore the emotional and physical benefits of forgiveness through a series of research projects involving Stanford college students, volunteers with unresolved hurt, and two groups of individuals that were affected by violence in Northern Ireland. In each of the studies treatment group participants were enrolled in training sessions on the steps of forgiveness (Schlitz, Amorok, & Micozzi, 2005).
Study participants receiving the forgiveness training displayed significant reductions in feelings of hurt and anger, as well as an increase in feelings of forgiveness, hope, and optimism. A decrease in the signs of depression amongst participants was noticed as well. On top of this, participants also noted feeling less stress along with a decrease in the physical symptoms of stress such as dizziness, headaches, stomach pain, back and muscle tension. The participants also benefited physically with improved vitality from the forgiveness training, including an increase in appetite, better sleep quality, and more energy (Schlitz, Amorok, & Micozzi, 2005).
Activity 1: Child's Pose (Balasana)
Child’s pose, or Balasana, is a very popular resting yoga pose that is easy to perform. The pose can help individuals to relax and quiet their mind while providing a gentle release of tension in the lower back. (Gregoire, 2013).
To perform child’s pose kneel on the floor with knees hip-width apart and tailbone resting on your heels. Inhale and then bend forward as you exhale until your torso touches your thighs and your forehead touches the ground. Arms can be rested either at your sides or stretched out in front of you. Breath comfortably (Gregoire, 2013). An example of child’s pose is shown in the photo above.
Activity 2: Mindfulness Meditation
Mindfulness is a form of meditation where the individual becomes a detached observer of their mental activity. Mindfulness meditation is a great way to relax, clear the mind, and explore its inner depths (Bernhard, 2012).
First start out by finding a quiet space and set aside as much time as you would like. Then sit comfortably in an upright position with your hands folded in your lap, close your eyes, and begin to focus on your breath as you inhale and exhale. As thoughts, emotions, or images enter your mind acknowledge them without judgment and return your focus to the breath again. When you are finished slowly return your awareness to the present (Bernhard, 2012).
As seen, mental fitness is an essential component to integral health and healing that can lead to a reduction in the incidence of both mental and physical distress. The process begins by training the mind, and the mind is then free for spiritual development to occur. Development of both psychological and spiritual health lead to less stress and negative behaviors. This in turn benefits the body by reducing the incidence of stress-related symptoms and conditions. Although, as previously mentioned, achieving mental fitness does not happen overnight and requires much practice and dedication from the individual.
“Although the apex of human flourishing may require an Olympian intensity of effort and practice, we can be well on the road to health, happiness, and wholeness with a far more moderate yet sustained effort. One hour each day adds up, and it is not long before results can be seen.” (Dacher, 2006, pp.64)
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