Both your muscles and brain work on the principle of “use it or lose it.” A brain must stay active and engaged to remain in top form. Otherwise, it gradually wastes away, leading to consequences as you grow older.
Fortunately for most fitness enthusiasts, exercise for the body also helps the brain. The long-term mental health benefits of regular exercise cannot be understated. Physically fit individuals can expect to keep their brains sharp well into old age.
And just like the body, the brain benefits from variety. Remember how awkward weight exercises develop strength by engaging muscle groups in different ways? The same is true for the brain.
What is Mental Fitness?
Mental fitness refers to the brain’s ability to adapt to a variety of conditions. It is especially apparent in the way we respond to increasingly stressful situations. Excellent mental fitness enables us to work well and keep our cool in less than pleasant circumstances.
Here are a few features of good mental fitness.
- Emotional control: A mentally fit person knows how to express emotion in a positive way. If you’re mentally fit, you can hold back and think about the consequences of acting on them.
- Brain plasticity: This refers to how well the brain changes connections. Being mentally means you learn faster and come with creative or rational solutions on the fly. Staying mentally fit also helps you stay sharp as you grow older.
- Metacognition: This is thinking about what you’re thinking. A lot of our thoughts are subconscious and automatic, and many of the actions they reinforce escape our notice until it’s too late. Staying on top of your thoughts lets you control your actions better.
Good mental fitness affects the body the same way physical fitness affects the mind. Reaching fitness goals requires you to commit to your goals and rein in impulsive behaviors. Cultivating the discipline to maintain your workout routine also requires brain plasticity.
Exercise by itself already contributes to mental fitness. Physical exertion causes the body to use up the adrenalin that builds up over the course of a day. The body also produces endocannabinoids while working out; these reduce anxiety and increase feelings of calm within the brain, causing the familiar post-workout euphoria. Regular exercise also helps increase the size of the brain’s hippocampus—the part of the brain that governs learning and memorization.
But that’s not the only thing you should add to your mental fitness regimen. The brain also benefits from a host of different activities, which include reading books, meditating, trying new things, and playing video games.
The Video Game Connection
Admittedly, video games are among the last that come to mind when people think of fitness. Gaming has a reputation for being unhealthily addictive, which isn’t entirely unfounded. But these negative images are ultimately the results of excess. Done in moderation, video games can be both benign and beneficial to your mental health.
A few benefits are obvious. Like all hobbies, video games are a great way to unwind and manage stress. But they don’t stop there. One study on 2,200 children showed that avid games tested better on memorization and impulsive behavior than those who didn’t play at all.
The key lies in how video games affect reward processing within the human brain. The brain makes new connections more effectively when it is rewarded. Video games challenge the player and reward them in some way. This results in a well-connected brain whose parts communicate more efficiently.
When you’re playing a game, your choices affect how the game works. Making the right choices gives you an obvious reward. The principle is the same whether you’re playing The Last of Us or Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Sometimes, you’re rewarded with game lore, essentially letting you work to flesh out the story. In games like Minecraft or Planet Zoo, what you end up building is the reward. This ability separates video games from TV shows and movies.
Video games also improve one’s ability to set-shift—that is, move seamlessly from one task to the next. This is often mistaken for the much less productive multitasking, which splits your ability to focus. When you set-shift, you’re still only doing one task at a time; your focus is never broken. Faster-paced games often demand that you do several actions in rapid succession, putting your set-shifting abilities to the test. If you’re an avid gamer, you will often find set shifting comes easy for you.
One study finds that the benefits you gain from a game depend on what mental faculties are involved in playing it. Puzzle-based games like Tetris, for instance, were found to affect one’s perception, recognition, and navigation. Text-based puzzle games like Wordle also engage your language skills.
Action games, meanwhile, improve hand-eye coordination and reaction times. These often rely on quick-time events where you must respond to things fast. You’ll never know when and where the bad guy’s tentacles or the zombie horde might attack next. Many action gamers train themselves to pay attention to what lies at the edge of their vision.
Other games encourage logical thinking. Simple games like klondike solitaire are exercises in elementary problem solving. The trope about intellectuals and chess also has roots in this principle. The classic board game is an excellent way to learn to hone your reasoning skills and your ability to anticipate the consequences of your actions.
Strategy games influenced by statistics, meanwhile, can encourage the development of math skills. The Pokémon wiki Bulbapedia, for instance, has an encyclopedic collection of game statistics on each Pokémon, item, and move in the games. These are used as references by competitive players to give them an edge in tournaments. Serious gaming can make mathematicians out of dedicated laypersons eventually.
Let’s get one thing out of the way. To be good for your mental health, a game doesn’t need to be a flashy spectacle that you play on a pricey console or gaming PC. Sure, you can spend your post-workout playing something like Assassin’s Creed Mirage, if you want. It would be a good way to manage stress and improve hand-eye coordination. On top of that, you’ll be learning a few new things about history (Assassin’s Creed is very good at this). But you certainly won’t need a Triple A hyperreal extravaganza to improve your mental fitness.
Sometimes, all you really need is an old classic and a mobile phone to play it. While you’re resting between sets, consider playing a quick puzzle game. If word games aren’t your thing, try a card game like solitaire or logic puzzles like sudoku or sokoban. These games are both mentally engaging and easy to get into. They are also fast; you can incorporate them seamlessly into your workout routine without investing too much time.
Because these games are portable, you wouldn’t need to worry about finding time for them. As your muscles recover from a strenuous set, your mind remains engaged. And because you’re also improving your ability to set-shift, you needn’t worry about breaking your rhythm. You can move from game mode to workout mode with ease.
The Bottom Line
Remember, though, that much like your muscles need rest between sets to recover and rebuild, you’ll need to play games in moderation. In times when you’re not gaming or working out, consider other mentally stimulating activities like meditation or reading.
The key to an effective mental workout is engagement. Choose a mentally stimulating activity that you actively enjoy to get the most out of it. Maybe you don’t have the patience for something like chess, but enjoy solving word puzzles. here are games that mesh better with some personality types better than others.
That said, it pays to step out of your comfort zone and try something harder than the usual fare. You won’t know what you want until you try it out. Don’t be afraid to try new things, even if there’s a bit of a learning curve involved. Part of the workout, after all, is the incremental increase in difficul