Mental pushups: Can a new app train your mind like the gym trains your body?

Eric Pfeiffer

There are countless exercise programs and dieting apps available these days. But one company says it has created the first fitness program for the mind.

“We are focused on providing tools and support to help people develop their psychological strengths, what we call mind fitness,” bLife founder Paul Campbell told Yahoo News during a phone interview.

In other words, having a healthy and engaged mind may be just as important to physical health as diet and exercise.

Even if we’re reluctant to actually do it, nearly all of us know the basics of getting in good physical shape – staying active, eating healthfully and so on. But the world of mental health is much more complicated, since it’s an area most people focus on only when it comes to mental health problems, many of which are still shrouded in taboo.

But recent studies suggest there’s a strong connection between mental health and physical health. People suffering from depression are more likely to also develop chronic physical ailments and vice versa.

So Campbell’s bLife program works by focusing on four main areas: focus, positivity, relationships and sleep.

After you fill out a 5-minute questionnaire on the bLife site, the app will give you a customized set of tasks, games and reminders tailored to those four key areas. Or, as the company describes it, “Pinterest with a purpose for wellness.”

Campbell says a consistent theme in the program is reducing stress.

“Stress is responsible for 60 percent of all disease and illness. Our hormones start to produce too much cortisol, which is bad for our system” Campbell said. “Reading, exercises, meditations, body awareness, expressing positivity and gratitude -- they are all exercises that can strengthen our resilience to stress.”

Now, few would argue against the benefits of reducing unnecessary stress. But is there really a tangible, medical benefit to the mind and body that can be measured scientifically?

Proponents of the connection between mental and physical health point to the work of Elizabeth Blackburn, who won the 2009 Nobel Prize in medicine for her work studying the telomere, a structure that protects chromosomes. As people age or become ill, the telomere shortens. Blackburn’s work discovered the enzyme telomerase, which replenishes the telomere and could conceivably extend human life. Some believe that improved diet, exercise and sleeping patterns result in an increase of the telomerase enzyme.

“Being better able to manage our stress response is proven to have a health outcome,” Campbell said. “Everything we’re doing has a scientific foundation.”

An increased focus on mental health has expanded into fields as diverse as the military and professional sports. It’s nearly as common today for athletes to consult with a sports psychologist as it is for them to work with a personal trainer during the off-season. The bottom line is that soldiers, athletes and even your average working professional are beginning to see a measured increase in performance levels from people who are mentally fit, i.e. happy, well adjusted and able to communicate with their colleagues in a constructive fashion.

“It’s really all about performance in those high-stress environments,” Campbell said. “There’s an emphasis on being connected, focused and on the same page strategically with your team in those relationships.”

Applying the same principles to bLife means allowing people to shift their focus among the four main areas of concentration and having the app provide new challenges as someone progresses in his or her mental health fitness routine.

“Having an adaptive program is where we see the power of technology being applied,” Campbell said. “We’re trying to help solve the question of how to we bring the best of science and design to this human happiness challenge.”