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Are You Brain Fit? Part 2: Improving Brain Fitness written by Jenny Brockis
In Part 1 of this topic, I introduced the concept of brain fitness which is not about being the smartest or most intelligent person but about having a brain optimised for best performance. We live in a modern world which is incredibly busy, fast paced and challenging. To perform well, it’s a matter of having a brain that can focus on what is important, copes well with change, remembers what matters and helps us to move beyond just surviving, to truly flourish.
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. In the previous article I discussed two aspects of brain fitness, nutrition and stress management. Here I continue to look at three other aspects of brain fitness; mental challenge, exercise and sleep.
1. Mental Challenge
Our brain loves a challenge and mental challenge is a great way to build a strong resilient mind. This is because our brain is what is termed plastic which is the ability of our 86 billion neurons to form connections between themselves, called synapses. The more synapses we create, the more neural pathways we build for more memory, new skills and more habits. Our plasticity is available to us across our lifespan, meaning that we are life-long learners (even though it does diminish as we get older).
I am often asked if cryptic crosswords and online brain training such as Lumosity is what is best for providing our brain with a mental challenge. The answer is, if you enjoy these types of activities, then they will certainly help improve your verbal memory, reaction times, memory and visuospatial skills, though they haven’t been proven to translate into improved overall brain performance.
But mental challenge isn’t just about what we do to entertain ourselves online, it’s about providing the brain with a series of challenges that are novel, graded and variable. Our kids are inherently curious – they love to explore anything and everything that’s new. As we get older we get a bit more rigid in our thinking and activities. Which means it’s time to reconnect with that child-like curiosity and do something different. The harder the challenge and the more effort involved, the better! So if you’ve always fancied learning to paint, sing or play cricket but never got around to it or put it off because you didn’t think you’d be much good – this is your opportunity.
Physical exercise is the best workout for our brain. It primes us for best performance by boosting cerebral blood flow which brings extra oxygen and nutrients and stimulates the production of neurochemicals essential to the support and maintenance of our existing neurons.
It’s been shown that kids who exercise regularly do better at school, get higher grades and experience fewer behavioural difficulties. At a time when many schools are cutting back on time for physical activity because of an overloaded curriculum, it’s even more important to ensure our kids get enough exercise – at least one hour every day to be active and run around. The same is true for us as adults. Scheduling time to get to the gym, go for a walk or bike ride has to be a must, not a maybe. When, will depend on your schedule. Early in the day is ideal but anytime is better than no time.
New research suggests that interval training – short bursts of intense activity is not just an excellent way to build physical fitness, it’s really good for the brain as well. If exercise is something you endure rather than enjoy, why not look to add some extra incremental activity such as choosing to use the stairs, parking at the far end of the car park, or changing modes of transport to work from bus, train or car to cycling or walking where ever possible.
We often try to save time by having less sleep. We see sleep as a nuisance, stopping us from getting on with all of our other important work. But reducing sleep time is the worst thing we can do when it comes to brain health. Unless you are a giraffe who typically needs less than 2 hours sleep at night, adult humans need between 7-9 hours of good quality uninterrupted sleep each night. Why? Because when we are asleep our brain is incredibly busy laying down long-term memory, getting the gist of what we have learned, taking out the brain’s metabolic trash and regulating our emotion.
Many of us acquire sleep debt through too many late nights and disturbed sleep patterns (due to snoring partners or our kids), leaving us cognitively tired and not functioning at our best. Being tired leads us to make more mistakes, make poorer decisions and less able to solve problems. So look for ways to keep to a regular bedtime routine, remove the dog (and the TV) from the bedroom and keep the room nice and cool and dark. As well, going to bed 20 minutes earlier each night is a great way to start to pay back that sleep debt.
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.