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How to Build Mental Agility and Better Adapt to Change or Difficulty

Improving this key skill helps you reach goals, stay nimble, and enhance how you respond to stress—and it can benefit nearly every area of your life, from work to fitness.

By Jihan MyersMay 22, 2024

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When you think of agility, you might think back to a gym teacher, sports coach, or fitness trainer who led you through drills to help you stay quick on your feet and pivot on a dime to sidestep defenders and opponents. Being physically agile has a lot of perks, particularly the ability to move in many different directions with ease. But have you ever thought about the importance of mental agility?

While mental agility is different than its physical counterpart, there are some similarities. “Physical agility is about moving around things and speeding up and slowing down, and mental agility is sort of the same thing,” says Michelle Cleere, PhD, a global performance coach who works with top athletes. “Things happen in daily life all the time, and we have to figure out how to adapt and adjust to those things rather than get stuck.” 

This skill is an important one to hone—after all, the ability to think quickly and pivot when circumstances change can be vital to your success in fitness, work, and life. Read on to learn more about mental agility, including what it is, why it’s important, and how staying mentally agile can help you reach your fitness and wellness goals.

What Is Mental Agility?

“Mental agility is the ability to switch between tasks and between different ways of thinking, such as logical, emotional, creative, intuitive, physical, or motivational,” says Tara Swart, MD, PhD, a neuroscientist and author of The Source: The Secrets of the Universe, the Science of the Brain. “It also enhances the way you respond to stress and your capacity to keep multiple options open, allowing you to make your thoughts and emotions work for you during challenging tactical or physical events.”

In many ways, mental agility boils down to being flexible and not so hard on yourself, whether life gets in the way of your goals (say, a family emergency puts plans on hold) or you encounter a personal slip-up (like when skipping the gym one day turns into a month of off-days). We’ve all been there, but how you persevere is a sign of mental agility.

“Someone with strong mental agility is able to adapt, be flexible, set goals, and recognize that sometimes they’re going to meet their goal and other times, for a variety of reasons, they may not,” Cleere says. For example, if for some reason you need to take a day off, you’re able to take that time and still figure out how to come back. People that lack mental agility, says Cleere, often struggle to get back on track.

Examples of Mental Agility

While there are ways to improve your mental agility (we’ll get to that in a second), you’re probably already displaying signs of this skill without even realizing it. A few examples:

  • You’re training for a 10K and are due to go for a run, but the weather outside is too rainy and cold. Instead of throwing in the towel, you pivot to an indoor cycling class instead and move your outdoor run to later in the week when the forecast improves.

  • The airport loses your luggage, so you fume for a few minutes and then make a quick list of what you absolutely need to make it through the first few days of your trip until your suitcase is recovered.

  • A vendor for an upcoming work event cancels at the last minute, so you quickly brainstorm a backup plan that can be implemented in the time you have. 

  • You allotted an hour to work out but after an unexpected delay, you only have about 20 minutes. While you’d prefer to do your full routine, you try a quick new workout that gives you the same sweaty endorphin high you were chasing.

As you can see, mental agility requires you to embrace new things and display flexibility when things don’t go as planned. When it comes to exercise, that can look like “staying motivated, increasing the challenge and variety of exercise, being open to feedback, resting, and working towards goals in multiple ways,” Dr. Swart says.

But don’t beat yourself up if you find your mental agility falters—that’s perfectly normal, Cleere says. Mental agility is not something you either have or you don’t.

“I always like to point out that when it comes to mental agility (or mental strength or coping skills, whatever it is you want to call them), sometimes we take it for granted that they’re really easy to have,” Cleere says. “And the unfortunate part is that for a lot of us, this stuff is unconsciously developed when we’re really young. And sometimes we feel confident one minute and the next minute we don’t, and that can dictate whether or not we have mental agility and whether or not we’re able to deal with obstacles.” 

Confidence can be a rollercoaster of ups and downs for all of us, so be prepared to ride that wave. Even if your mental agility lags one day, it doesn’t mean you won’t be mentally quick on your feet the next.

The Benefits of Improving Your Mental Agility

We all know how frustrating it can be when we encounter roadblocks and challenges, like illness, an unexpected injury, or an extra-busy time at home or work that forces you out of your usual routine. No matter what the reason, when life gets in the way, it can be understandably hard to pivot. That’s why mental agility is so important. The ability to break free from a completely negative, “this is awful” mindset and instead find unique, uplifting solutions can be a game-changer for your mood and your goals. 

“The benefits of mental agility are that you can reach your goals through multiple modalities—your motivation, your physicality, your desire to achieve,” Dr. Swart says. “And even if you fall out of your routine, you are more likely to start over rather than berating yourself for failing.”

Other benefits of mental agility may potentially include:

  • Increased willpower

  • Less frustration

  • More commitment (and ability to re-commit)

  • Less likely to give up on goals

  • More forgiving of mistakes or missteps

Why Is Mental Agility So Important for Fitness? 

The benefits of mental agility for fitness go both ways, Dr. Swart says: “This is a two-way relationship as exercise benefits the brain through oxygenation and helps with neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability to grow and change), and building strength in areas such as motivation, emotional intelligence, and setting and achieving goals contribute to wellness and fitness,” she explains.

“Mental agility is important for fitness because fitness really is a lifelong pursuit,” Cleere adds. “It’s a lifestyle and anything we do that’s part of our lifestyle, whether it’s wanting to be healthy, or fit, or live a long, happy life, requires the ability to be resilient and move through obstacles.”

How to Build Your Mental Agility

If you feel like your mental agility is lacking, you may wonder how, exactly, to go about improving it. It’s a good question—and the answer is that it takes practice.

Trying and learning new things is the best way to build mental agility,” Dr. Swart says. “It can be anything from a language to a new sport as that gives global benefits to the brain.” Anything that requires you to think differently counts, she notes. And don’t just focus on areas where you’re feeling weak: Strengthening areas where you’re already pretty mentally agile can help, too.  

Methods to practice building mental agility include:

  • Learning a new language

  • Trying a different workout that you’ve never done before—the Peloton App is a great way to mix things up

  • Cooking a new recipe that’s out of your comfort zone

  • Trying something you know you’re not good at—remember, it’s more than OK to be a beginner!

  • Pushing yourself in something you do regularly, like increasing the speed or incline during your next treadmill workout

Another important part of cultivating mental agility: tapping into how you react and feel during different situations. For instance, when roadblocks pop up, don’t immediately try to power through. Take a minute to truly understand what’s going on. If you feel bad about having to miss a workout, what will help you get back to it the next day? “It’s important to really evaluate the obstacles in your life and how you overcome them,” Cleere says. 

Cleere encourages the athletes she works with to develop a “performance routine” of things that psych them up to train. It could be music, a mantra, or envisioning their goal. Taking the time to mentally prepare for obstacles you may encounter can help you stay mentally agile when things get tough.

The Takeaway

Being mentally agile is important in your everyday life, including in how you approach health and fitness goals. Strong mental agility can help you reach goals, boost willpower, and bounce back when setbacks inevitably arise. Improving your mental agility is a skill that takes practice, and to do so, experts typically recommend trying new things—a new language, workout, recipe, you name it—as well as making the time to understand how you feel and react when roadblocks pop up. As you practice being flexible and adaptable to life’s ever-changing demands, you’ll see that you can still reach your goals even when the path gets a little bumpy.

This content is for informational and educational purposes only and does not constitute individualized advice. It is not intended to replace professional medical evaluation, diagnosis, or treatment. Seek the advice of your physician for questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition. If you are having a medical emergency, call your physician or 911 immediately.

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