While it’s well recognised that physical and mental wellbeing are important, what has been missing is using better brain health to boost thinking skills and cognition. With a wealth of information available from brain science to show what really works, building a brain that is fitter, stronger and more stress-resistant doesn’t have to be hard. All you need is an open mind, a willingness to put in some effort and enjoy the process.
Here are five steps to get down and dirty with down at the brain gym.
Step one: create a daily habit of difference
Connect with your inner child. Being curious to the world outside our usual way of doing boosts adaptability and mental flexibility. When you catch yourself doing something the same way you always do it, challenge your brain to do it differently. Read a book in a different genre. Extend your vocabulary by learning some new words. Eat a new food, cook a different recipe, travel to a new destination, ban the GPS and the calculator, and drive your brain’s plasticity.
Step two: get creative
Can’t draw, sing or play guitar? Perfect. Release that inner Vincent Van Gogh and sign up for an art class, music lessons or learn Mandarin. Its not the activity, it’s the process of new learning that counts. Stretching that mental muscle, especially when it’s an activity you don’t expect to be good at, requires you to play close attention to what you are learning and drives your brain’s natural plasticity harder. Cross training is the best where the activity involves coordinated movement and concentration. It’s time to tango!
Step three: stop thinking so much
Thinking hard all day long is exhausting and isn’t the way your brain was designed to operate. You wouldn’t expect to be able to run a marathon every day and neither does your brain. Instill a couple of brain breaks during your day and take a proper lunch break, to give your brain the breathing space it needs to access your mighty subconscious, assimilate all that new information, and process what needs to be stored, retained or tossed in the trash. Failing to take a brain break during the day leads to busy brains at night trying to catch up with the day’s activities.
A 15-minute brain break is the perfect time to get up and stretch your legs, grab a glass of water, chat to a friend or just chill while your brain re-energises itself – ready for the next chunk of heavy-focused thinking.
Step four: stand up for your brain
We think far better on our feet. Moving more during the day keeps your brain on the go. Standing elevates your level of alertness by around 40 per cent. Which exercise is best? It’s the one you do regularly, though a 20-minute session of Hatha yoga has been shown to boost cognition more than the equivalent time on a treadmill. Now would be the perfect time to get into the downward dog.
In addition to boosting brainpower, aerobic exercise – yes, that huffy puffy stuff – helps to burn off stress hormones such as cortisol and elevate the release of our feel-good hormones such as dopamine, serotonin and endorphins. It also increases the release of BDNF [brain-derived neurotrophic factor] and other neurotrophic factors that nurture and maintain neuronal health, and stimulate neurogenesis, the production, survival and maturation of around 700 new neurons every day. So what are you waiting for, let’s move it!
Step five: connect with others
Spending time with family and friends, sharing a laugh and activities we find enjoyable not only makes us feel good, but it also boosts mental wellbeing and reduces stress. We are more creative, we come up with more ideas, are more tolerant of difference and less judgmental. Our social connections motivate us to work harder, collaborate more and make better sense of the world around us.
Lost touch? Re-establish contact and rekindle old flames of friendship. Or volunteer to help others. It’s the greatest reward your brain will ever receive. Smile and receive one back to spread positivity germs and practise being kind.
Take time to reconnect with yourself too, 15 minutes each day to press pause and reflect, or undertake a meditative practice. Spending time outside in a green space induces a greater sense of calm, contentment and greater happiness.
It’s time to go green.