Strength Training *(for your brain)

“We often miss opportunity because it's dressed in overalls and looks like work” - Thomas Edison

arches national park

When I’m not driving all over America, writing these blogs, or posting selfies all over Instagram, I am a middle school math teacher. Through eight years of teaching, one of the things that has been most consistent is the, “but Ms. Hart, this is too hard! Will we ever do something easy?” that kids repeat on a daily hourly basis.

To this I always say: “No, because in my class we do hard things”. Kids invariably look at me with a mix of disgust and genuine concern. “Why would you do hard things.. on purpose?” — if something can be easier, shouldn’t it be easier?? 

I don’t think so. At all. Let me explain.

You’ve probably heard of mental strength. It’s a buzzword (phrase?) lately, but with many different explanations. To me, mental strength is the ability to endure the normal and abnormal parts of life while still remaining hopeful. Positive. Resilient. Sounds great, so how do you get some? Is it something we are just born with? Are some people just able to handle things better than others? 

Mental strength, like physical strength, is cultivated. I constantly tell my students that our brains are muscles, which means it can grow! And the more I thought about physical strength, the more parallels to mental strength I saw. 

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Strength training is based on resistance. Muscles contract against resistance before they can increase. Mentally, the resistance is the hard things! The things that you don’t want to do. That seem too hard, too time-consuming, whatever. But just like strength training, the hard things are what enable us to grow. 

Think about your to-do list. If you're like me, you carry over the same things from one day to... 100 days later. The things I don't want to do. I'll do them later. I'm resisting them. I want to make things easier for myself. I don't contract against them like a muscle, I shrink away completely. 

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When muscles contract against resistance, it damages them. It creates micro tears in the muscles as they work to overcome the resistance. I don’t know all the technical weight lifting terms, but basically — it creates damage. That is necessary. 

Hard things also create some damage (I mean, they’re hard. Duh). When you’re learning something new or taking on a new challenge, it’s not easy. You may (probably will) fail in the beginning. You’ll become discouraged, mad, bitter.. etc. But remember, this is necessary!

In yoga, my instructors often say that, “you should be shaking right now — that’s where growth happens” and this is true for your brain as well. When we challenge our brain (and make mistakes!) there are actually more synapses firing — which is indicative of learning. (source)

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After muscles are torn/damaged/I don’t know ask someone at Crossfit, then they repair themselves. It’s through the repair that the muscles increase in size and strength. 

Mentally, the repair is the learning phase. It’s when you start feeling capable and resilient. It’s when you make a mistake (or experience a total crushing failure), and are able to reflect on it. 

Professor Jo Boaler writes a lot about the importance of challenges in math classrooms — but her research can be applied to anything. She says that, “the brain sparks and grows when we make a mistake, even if we are not aware of it, because it is a time of struggle; the brain is challenged and the challenge results in growth.” How cool. 

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After muscles repair themselves, they grow! Mentally, after you face a challenge, make mistakes, and learn from them — you grow too! You grow your mental strength, confidence, and capability. 

Capability is so important. Google tells me it’s “having the ability, fitness, or quality necessary to do or achieve a specified thing.” And isn’t that what we all want? To be able to do The Thing? No matter how “hard”?

I remember when I first started traveling on my own. I stopped to see a friend on the Western slope and we went on a hike. They asked me how I seemed to do all these things alone so easily. I only realized the answer as it came out of my mouth and I told them, “It’s not easy — but, the more I do, the more capable I feel.” And that’s still the key. The more you do — the more you can do. The more weights you lift — the more weights you can lift. It’s not rocket science, people. 

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Now before you start lifting the heavy mental weights, there are some things to remember:

Rest days: Any weight room bro will tell you — rest days are essential. If you work your muscles too hard, they never have time to repair. Your body needs rest to grow.

Mentally, this is also true. Give yourself some slack every once in a while. You don’t have to be achieving, striving, learning, positive, whatever, all the time. Give yourself a rest. 

Stretch (but don’t break): I go to this yoga class called “yoga sculpt” — think, bootcamp with some sanskrit. In other words -- it’s tough. When I started I always used the smallest weights -- or no weights at all -- during the class. It was torture. But, in just a few months, I was able to get some heavier weights. To use them the entire class. To do the extra, up-leveling stuff without feeling like I was going to die.

If I started out with the heavier weights (like many new people do — then end up switching them 15 minutes in to class), I would have felt totally incapable. I would have burnt out, felt negative, quit going, or soothed my sore body and dignity with a bottle of wine. But I started small. The class was a stretch for me in the beginning, but it wasn’t so bad that I couldn’t handle it.

And now my “stretch goal” keeps changing. See where you are, stretch yourself to do the hard things — but don’t stretch so hard that you break.

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How To:

So you’ve somehow made it this far, and you want to do hard things. But, how? Specifically? Here are some of the things I’ve found that help me:  

Set the tone: In order to do hard things — do small things first! For example, I am a militant bed maker (I have a blog draft JUST about that). Anyways, the basic idea behind my compulsion is that it sets the tone for your day. I just woke up, but I already accomplished this thing that most people never make the time to do. Or don’t think is important. Or don’t see the benefit. But the benefits are actually huge (I’m serious). 

Making the bed is a small thing — but it sets the tone for your day. And your days set the tone for your life. If you want to feel accomplished, responsible, calm, and able to do more hard things — start with the smaller things. 

Challenges: Most of you know I’ve been doing monthly challenges this year. I gave up alcohol, coffee, meat, dairy, and chocolate (two months because I totally failed the first time). And I’ve told people about it! That is key. If you want to do something, but it seems really hard — make it into a challenge. With some accountability. I want to have more willpower, so I am challenging myself to cultivate it through challenges. I’m telling others so that I can’t wuss out. 

Visualize: When I don’t want to go to yoga, take a hike, email that parent, text that guy, or call Comcast (hardest thing), I imagine how I will feel after I’ve done it. I visualize the weight that will be lifted, the way my body will feel, the stress that I will have mitigated, or the money I will save — and it’s worth the discomfort in the moment. When you worry and stress you’re already visualizing — all the things you DON’T want. Think about the things you do. 

Just FORCE yourself: Sit in the discomfort. You don’t have to read this blog or a book on brain science to know that doing hard things is important. That you will grow from them. That they are necessary. But we make every excuse not to. To avoid. Make things “easy”. But sometimes you just have to force yourself. Everything is not easy. Life is not easy. 

The path of least resistance is just that — no resistance. Resistance is necessary for growth. So the question is, would you rather live a life of less resistance, but no growth — or a life full of challenge and hard things, but growth, confidence, strength, and capability?

I know which I’d rather. 



Pictures taken at Arches National Park.