Susannah Taylor: Your mind is a muscle, too. So work it!

We are forever being told about the limitless benefits of regular exercise: of gaining strength; of making the blood pump round our bodies; of building fitness levels. But what if we could apply the same rules to our minds? What if the principles we use to keep our bodies shipshape could also maintain our mental health?

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Well, it seems they can, according to psychotherapist and mental health consultant Zoë Aston, whose book Your Mental Health Workout: A 5 Week Programme to a Healthier, Happier Mind* has been published this week. As a child Zoë was bullied, suffered from a debilitating eating disorder and self-harmed. While she was lucky enough to be able to access professional help, she wonders what might have happened if she hadn’t. Now, as a
mental health professional, she is passionate about ‘taking therapy out of the therapy room’, as she puts it, and equipping people with the right mental health tools to use at home.

Zoë is not knocking professional help, but thinks that we all need a mental health toolkit in our back pocket. She believes (as do I) that we should be taught the basics of good mental wellbeing in school. ‘I want to supply the kit and skills required to cope with difficult life transitions, to understand and adjust to unhelpful or self-destructive behaviours. I want to make your mind a happier place,’ she says.

Some self-help books can be a daunting, confusing and thoroughly uninspiring read. However, Zoë has brilliantly structured hers like a workout plan after it dawned on her that
there was a parallel between the exercises she was doing in the gym, and the internal work she had done on herself. She realised that both physical and mental plans require commitment, consistency and responsibility in order to gain results.

Zoë believes we should be flexing our mind muscles daily if we want to stay on top of our mental health, just as we plan fitness or keep a tally on our five a day. Your Mental Health Workout is therefore an easy, actionable five-week plan designed for anyone, no matter your age or state of mental health.

Zoë stresses that you don’t have to be in dire straits in order to try it: ‘Some people might live their entire lives feeling a little bit anxious,’ she says. This is as much for them as it is for someone feeling mentally ill and is perfect for anyone feeling below par post-pandemic.

Zoë’s programme (see right) features a mental warm-up, followed by four weekly workouts (therapy, social events, exercise and self-care) and four daily workouts (mindfulness, connection, appreciation and movement). There’s a worksheet to keep you on track with your goals – all it takes (like any exercise plan) is some commitment. But just like a 30-day plank challenge or Couch to 5k, if you do commit results are guaranteed.

How to train your brain…

…with psychotherapist Zoë Aston’s six-step mental-fitness plan

1. Set goals

As with any exercise plan, donning your gym kit will only get you so far – you have to work out to notice change. To keep you motivated, Zoë suggests setting mental health targets. ‘When we set goals we ignite hope, which in turn helps build psychological resilience. Think of it like your recovery period: how you bounce back when you’re tired or burnt out,’ says Zoë.

2. Warm up

As with any type of exercise, Zoë suggests warming up the mind muscles first. ‘The main
muscles that need activating are your self-esteem [like your core stability],’ she says. ‘And your boundaries and vulnerability [your psychological range of motion].’ Zoë then prescribes exercises to help us check in with ourselves daily. One way is looking in the mirror and describing what you see. ‘Nothing is more important than how you feel and think about yourself,’ she says.

3. Weekly workouts

These will get your major mental muscle groups moving.

Find a therapeutic space Just as you would go to a personal trainer for fitness, when it
comes to mental health Zoë suggests you have a place to go to or someone who can help you to help yourself.

Attend social events Zoë believes that socialising helps you to heal and take good care
of your mental health. Social interaction can act like a diagnostic tool or gauge as to how you feel. It’s important even if you’re socially anxious.

Plan physical exercise We feel much better after an endorphin-fuelled body workout. Zoë suggests a minimum of 30 minutes of physical exercise three times a week, plus mindfulness exercises associated with movement, and asks us to check in on how we feel about our bodies when moving.

Practise self-care ‘This fills you up with vitality and progresses your psychological stamina,’ says Zoë, who is a ‘radical self-care advocate’. She says many people have a block about taking care of themselves. Identify the things that make you feel good (and are good for you) and plan them into your week.

4. Daily workouts

These smaller movements create definition and contentment.

Mindfulness This is about accepting the moment exactly for what it is without judgment
and Zoë likens it to hydrating post-exercise because it refreshes us. In her book, she includes a dedicated mindfulness workout to help recognise those unwanted thoughts.

Connection It’s vital we connect with ourselves and others. Ask yourself daily, ‘How are you feeling?’; keep a journal of your thoughts; look into your eyes and touch your body in a loving way (eg, self-massage).

Appreciation For this workout, write down three things you are grateful for and choose a
positive affirmation to repeat three times a day. This exercise forces us to recognise the small joys we may have overlooked.

Movement ‘Your head is very much part of your body,’ says Zoë, who invites us to move
naturally (rather than formally in a gym). Dance to music or take a walk – anything goes, but it’s important as a form of release.

5. Physio for the soul

Zoë can help you identify your feelings and to understand that they are our mental health
muscles. Check in with your emotions (eg, fear, guilt, shame) to discover what they are trying to tell you about what to do next.

6. Learn to go with your flow

It is likely, says Zoë, that at some point in our lives we will all experience feelings of anxiety, depression, obsession and self-sabotage. In this final section, she offers advice on how we can self-soothe, face our feelings and reconnect with them.

Need a running repair?

Online searches for running injuries have soared in the past year as people take up the sport**. Olympic athlete Ross Murray and physiotherapist Richmond Stace have these tips for keeping pain at bay…

‘Ankle support for runners’: searches up 250 per cent

‘Supports only mask the issue,’ says Ross. His advice is to strengthen with 10-15 minute
foot and ankle circuits three to four times a week, including balance exercises, calf raises
and static/dynamic postures.

‘Sore Achilles after running’: searches up 250 per cent

‘This means you’re training too hard,’ says Ross. ‘Cut back your running by 15 per cent until it doesn’t hurt. Then increase the intensity on a bi-weekly basis by five to ten per cent.’

‘How to help shin splints’: searches up 600 per cent

‘There are many reasons for shin splints,’ says Richmond. ‘Is training too intense? A lack of
recovery time? The wrong running shoes, stress, ill health and poor sleep are all factors.’

‘Lower back pain after running’: searches up 200 per cent

Richmond recommends regular daily movement if sedentary, cool downs, stretches and simple movements such as lumbar rolls, knees to chest and roll-downs after exercising.

‘Sore knee from running’: searches up 400 per cent

‘A good recovery programme includes stretching, range-of movement exercises such as
knee circles and strength training,’ says Richmond. Once better, he recommends a graded return to running.

**Hodder & Stoughton, £16.99. To order a copy for £14.44 until 30 May go to or call 020 3308 9193. Free UK delivery on orders over £20.

**According to, makers of naturally soothing wellbeing products