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Are You Brain Fit? Part 1: Optimising The Brain for Best Performance written by Dr. Jenny Brockis
From our earliest times as hunter-gatherers, humans have migrated. This is thought to have contributed to our evolutionary success and the development of our extraordinary brain. The need for physical fitness to stay healthy, boost energy and live longer is well established.
Curiously though, while we do our ‘cardio or resistance training’ and build muscular strength and endurance, the one organ that benefits us the most by being fit and healthy, the brain, has up to now rarely received attention. Brain fitness is about having a brain optimised for best performance. It’s not about being the smartest or most intelligent person in the room, it’s about the confidence to know you are working to your true capability.
WHY DOES BRAIN FITNESS MATTER?
The modern world is incredibly busy, fast paced and challenging. Having a brain that can focus on what is important, copes well with change and remembers what matters, helps us to move beyond just surviving to truly flourish.
WHAT DOES BRAIN FITNESS INVOLVE?
A brain fitness program incorporates a number of components, which fit neatly together like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Each component is important and synergistic with each other, meaning none can be left out or ignored. Just like physical fitness, it takes some time, effort and commitment because working with your brain involves our neurobiology, a natural process that can’t be hurried.
Brain fitness starts with attending to those lifestyle choices we make to stay fit and well. Only then is it time to move up to improving our effectiveness in how we pay attention, how we communicate, collaborate, develop more innovative thinking and get on well with others.
Let’s look at what it takes to create a fit and healthy brain.
Yes, mother was right when she told us to eat our greens. The diet that has been shown to be especially beneficial to brains is the Mediterranean style diet. This diet includes leafy green vegetables, deeply pigmented fruits and berries (think blueberries, strawberries, cherries and plums), seeds and nuts, (walnuts almonds, flaxseed and sunflower kernels), whole grains, olive oil and plenty of water. As well we need lean protein and especially cold-water oily carnivorous fish (salmon, herring, sardines and mackerel).
While many diets are restrictive and tell us what not to eat, eating for our brain is about including more fresh unprocessed food with each meal. As we include more healthy foods, it becomes easier then to eat less of those other foods that are not so good for memory and cognition, especially those full of hidden fat, sugar and salt.
2. ATTITUDE AND STRESS MANAGEMENT
Many of us face a variety of different worries in our daily lives; difficulty finding work, relationship problems, bullying, heavy workloads, financial or health problems. They all take a toll. Knowing how to develop a positive mindset helps build emotional resilience and makes it easier for us to navigate through those tough times.
This matters because severe chronic stress contributes to physical and mental ill health. While stress is normal, if we find ourselves in a position of too much stress for too long, our ability to manage that stress becomes reduced. We all need some stress to alert us when we are in a place of danger and normal levels of stress are beneficial, as it gets us out of bed in the morning and makes us concerned about what our day may bring!
The problem is that many of those things that cause us stress today, induce the same physiological response that our ancestors experienced when they faced a sabre tooth tiger. But in today’s world, the physiological response is more chronic, meaning that instead of a quick on-off action, the stress response remains switched on and our stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol continue to be produced. Long term cortisol exposure impairs the brain, which impairs learning, memory and mood. At high levels, cortisol becomes neurotoxic, which is definitely not a good thing for the brain.
The more stressed we feel the harder it is to access our prefrontal cortex, (the thinking part of our brain), because the limbic system has taken control. The limbic system is composed of interconnected neural structures in the brain that deal with emotion, motivation and behaviour. We find it hard to concentrate, to sleep, we can’t think straight and it makes us feel dreadful.
Stress management begins with choosing to develop a more positive attitude or mindset – not happy-clappy rose-tinted positivity, but a realistically optimistic outlook. This can be achieved by practicing stress-regulating techniques such as meditation, listening to music and exercise.
Next month in the second part of ‘Are you Brain Fit?’ I will discuss three other very important aspects of being brain fit; mental challenge, exercise and sleep.
Author of this article:
Dr Jenny Brockis specialises in the science of high performance thinking. She is the author of Future Brain – the 12 Keys to Create Your High Performance Brain, (Wiley) available at all leading book stores, online retailers and from her website.