Mental Fitness: Training for Health

Mental health should be a major topic of concern around the world as we find ourselves more than a year into a global pandemic. Signs of things opening up are starting to inspire hope about a less restrictive future, but we are also seeing a loss of control in the release of the tension people are feeling. It is going to be very easy to diagnose poor mental health in the coming months and years, but the question is: what can we do to improve our mental health, overall?

The basics of mental health are very similar to physical health. We can be more proactive if we look at our mental and physical capacities in terms of fitness instead of health. Striving for fitness goals is an effective way of promoting and protecting good health. In order to be fit, you have to eat well and exercise regularly. The results of the work are evident in how you feel and how you are able to perform. The more extreme the training, the higher the threshold of possible achievement is, with a point of diminishing return where more work doesn’t lead to the same degree of gains.

Navy Seals train rigorously so that they will be prepared to remain functional under extreme duress. This is one extreme end of the physical fitness spectrum, but their work also includes mental training. All training helps both mind and body, but the more you include technical skills into the training the more interactive the mind and body in training become. Being able to think and communicate, to interact skillfully during physical exertion is a measure of total mind/body fitness.

The same habits that lead to physical fitness can also lead to mental fitness. Creating a training schedule designed to promote strengthening of physical and mental abilities will provide the structure needed to sustain and understand the results of this kind of work. If you are able to effectively perform both mental and physical challenges for a sustained period of time, then you can be said to be sound of mind and body and in good health. Instead of waiting to diagnose an illness, we can choose fitness as a path to well being.

If our diet and our exercise affect both our mental and physical health, what about the things we consume and produce? Is there some kind of calorie-in/ calorie-out ratio when it comes to mental consumption of cultural artifacts? If you are what you eat, what about the culture that you consume? How does what we read and see affect our physical health? How does thinking about what we consume in culture help us to assimilate or eliminate ideas and energies?

Thinking about mental health as a result of good mental fitness practices opens up all kinds of questions and points to exciting directions for research. The method of separating people in to athletes and intellectuals, jocks and nerds is becoming more and more evidently bad form. Instead, we should strive for balanced well functioning minds and bodies. Through training, we can achieve greater degrees of mind/body fitness.

As we attempt to recover physically, mentally and financially from this pandemic, focusing on best practices for physical and mental fitness will help immensely to promote good mental and physical health. 

Train for the Change You Want to See: GYB Strength

We have the occasion, during this period of life interrupted, to think about one of life’s great questions: how do we create social change? There are so many ways to approach this topic and I think that one of the great things about contemporary culture and social media is our ability to see plenty of examples and to learn from our peers. 

When you stop and look at the flow of history with the objective of seeing how social change occurs, it becomes clear that most of what we see as social equilibrium is merely an angle of repose that has resulted in a dynamic balance from ages of struggle and collapse. Beneath that image of stability is a violently churning reality. There are multitudes of groups pushing for their own interests and it is some vast turbulent ocean of conflict and cooperation that is keeping things dynamically the same and allowing for some change in certain moments.

We have professional activists who study the situation looking for nodal points of leverage where force or support can be applied to some effect. We have career politicians actively transforming ideas into reality through the drafting of legislation, the execution of mandates, and the judgment of actions. Politics is much bigger than a business or even an industry. Politics are the official and often arbitrary outcomes of power struggles. It is the public story power writes.

It is the people who are doing the struggling, though. In many cases, this struggle results in a form of work that is like existential hysteria, an outward expression of the ultimate grief. The display of displeasure, the story of true human suffering becomes a work, a narrative that can be replayed, retold, reconfigured as evidence supporting our cause. In other words, the people who are publicly hurting are providing us with the ability to discuss our underlying problems. In doing the work to understand how to change the conditions that lead to such unnecessary suffering we are honoring their sacrifice.

In many if not most cases, the people who become national topics of debate do not do so intentionally. Our great change makers often are not volunteering for the job, but people who simply suffer the consequences of an unjust system and who inspire other people through the expression of their suffering. It is through phrases of sheer terror that a truth is illuminated: “I can’t breathe.” It is in the extreme vulnerability of a human being involuntarily brought to the edge of life itself asking for their mother or their father that we see something true about our condition of being. How do we become more humane humans?

Over the weekend, I had the opportunity to work with one of my favorite artists, Gillian Young. She is too many things to name, which is why the title of artist is really the only label that fits. She is a fitness coach, a food influencer, a writer, a fashion model, a social activist and a community builder as well as many other interesting things. One thing she is not, however, is quiet about the change she wants to see.

Whenever I see Gillian in person, I have the feeling that I am in the presence of a superhero. She is an exquisitely beautiful woman, with a fashion forward style, flowing with feminine grace and elegance but accented and accessorized with an edginess that speaks to her strength. Her bright and warm demeanor are offset by a tattoo of a knife, by her shoes. This is a woman, one thinks, capable of being a great friend, a valued collaborator, but also one you do not want to fuck with.

Gillian, like anyone mentally fit enough to pay attention, is on a path of awakening to more of the world’s truths and, as we come to understand the depth of the problems we collectively face, it can be daunting to engage. How do we speak up for what we believe effectively? How can we be positive influences of change? What does that look like? 

For Gillian, as a fitness coach and personal trainer, the answer is through training. You don’t achieve fitness goals overnight. They take work and dedication and discipline. Well, why would we think it would be any different or easier to create a healthier society? It’s not. 

It has often been said, attributed to Ghandi, that one of the best ways to effect change is to be the change you want to see in the world. Gillian is taking this idea to its practical level by training to create the change she wants to see. After all, we can’t just be anything we want without doing the work. We have to practice any art or skill we want to improve.

Taking the discipline and the technique of working towards fitness goals and applying them to building a diverse community, Gillian is modeling an effective approach to changemaking. This is a kind of proactive model of protest. It is about building coalitions and sharing stories so that we can coexist more happily together.

But don’t mistake this movement as a superficial and doomed to fail because overly optimistic flash in the pan. This is not fool’s gold, it’s not gold at all. It is good. The common good. Enlightened self-interest. The social agreement. But remember the tattoo of the knife. In order to build community, you also have to have clear boundaries, and you have to establish a seriousness of your intent to preserve the integrity of the group. We are not fucking around, her smile seems to say.

We are here to do the work, her back states, to create powerful social connections and to articulate our vision of equity and friendship to anyone willing to try. Gillian’s brand name is GYB, the acronym for her full name Gillian Young Barkalow, but it also stands for her motto, her mantra, her mission statement, her mandate: Give Your Best.

Certain people are inspiring to be around because of their verve, their spark, their drive for living and this electrical aura is what makes Gillian such a powerful coach. Following her on social media is witnessing a woman building a movement. If you are looking for motivation in your fitness journey, you should consider an interview with Gillian the Great if you are ready to train for the change you want to see.