Dr. Daniel Amen, a psychiatrist and founder of the Amen Clinics, believes that our brain is the hard drive of our souls. That’s a radical statement, but the brain is the command center of our entire system. Without a working brain, we lack self-identity, cannot interact with the world, and lose the ability to learn, grow, and experience life.
As it becomes increasingly evident that habits are the key to optimizing our health, including brain fitness, brain function, cognitive health, physical and mental health, it’s crucial that we develop healthy habits. To do so, we need to be mindful of what we put into our minds and utilize brain training to support our mental fitness.
7 Reasons Why You Need to Focus on Brain Fitness
Here are seven reasons to motivate you to develop better brain-fitness habits. Hopefully, when after you read them, you’ll see the importance.
#1 Preserves Working Memory, Increases Brain Power, and Speeds Reaction Time
Just as regular physical exercise and a healthy lifestyle promote physical health, brain training helps to improve memory function. Exercising our brain forces it to work extra hard, creating new vascular pathways necessary to improve blood supply and oxygenation. These critical activities also prevent cognitive decline, maintain efficient cognitive function, and protect long-term memory. Additionally, brain-boosting exercises increase verbal efficiency, help maintain sharper attention to detail and focus while enhancing memory functions.
#2 Boosts Mood and Confidence
When our brains are fit, we have a clear mind that seizes opportunities and is much more likely to reach out socially. By keeping our brains challenged, we are highly productive and accomplish more. And when we feel good about ourselves, the enhanced confidence often leads to improved self-esteem, which can help you maintain a more positive outlook in life and improve the quality of your relationships.
#3 An Exercised Brain Increases Neural Connections and Grey Matter
An exercised brain replenishes new brain cells. Whatever fires together, wires together, so by flexing our mental muscles, we can create expansive networks that make our brain more efficient. Grey matter, consisting of ten percent of our brain’s volume, is dedicated to processing information, and its increase allows for faster processing. The more you exercise your brain, the better it processes information. What we don’t use, we lose.
#4 Brain Fitness Fights Depression and Anxiety
People who suffer from depression often feel helpless or lack control over their situation. However, engaging in new activities or a simple brain exercise can redirect your attention to a more positive frame while achieving stress reduction. Research shows that when we are focused on promoting growth and well-being for ourselves, whether through physical activity, problem-solving, learning a new skill, or consciously working on a better memory, we are less likely to be depressed.
#5 Reduces Stress
Brain fitness exercises such as meditation and yoga reduce stress by nurturing the nervous system. By calming the body and mind, we can relax our overworked brains and restore balance to our lives. From an evolutionary standpoint, we evolved to handle short-term threats like a physical attack or natural disaster, not deal with the onslaught ongoing, even though they may now seem normal.
#6 Improves Focus and Concentration
It’s hard to focus when your brain is foggy. Once you learn how to exercise your mind, you can increase productivity and efficiency at home, work, or school by using your brain to its potential.
#7 Helps You Lose Weight
Exercise not only helps manage weight but also curbs cravings for sugary snacks and other junk food. An hour of cardio might be the last thing you want to do after a long day at work, but if you must choose between a donut and a jog, get yourself moving. Regular exercise can help keep cravings at bay, so you don’t binge when stressed out or tired.
Top 3 Things to Avoid or Replace if You Want Brain Health
There are certain things we tend to do that are bad for our brains. So what are the worst habits for the brain? Here's a starting place of things to replace and form healthier habits.
#1: Avoid junk food and replace unhealthy snacks and meals.
Replace unhealthy snacks and fast food meals with healthy, well-balanced meals filled with vitamins, minerals, and protein. Avoid foods high in sugar, nitrates, and preservatives.
#2 Replace chemicals with natural cleaners and essential oils.
Limit or eliminate your consumption of chemicals found in cleaning products and air fresheners. Try replacing these unhealthy products with natural substances that support your health and prevent harm to your brain or pollution to your blood. Essential oils have many anti-bacterial effects and can aid in your overall health.
#3 Limit TV and internet surfing
Watching too much TV, i.e., Netflix binging, can lead to brain fog, brain drain and can severely compromise brain health. In recent studies, too much TV viewing has an adverse effect on the brain.
“Our findings suggest that the amount of television viewing, a type of sedentary behavior, may be related to cognitive decline and imaging markers of brain health. Therefore, reducing sedentary behaviors, such as television viewing, may be an important lifestyle modification target to support optimal brain health.” ~Priya Palta
Related reading: "Break Bad Habits by Rewiring Your Brain."
Brain Fitness Exercises to Elevate Brain Health
#1 Exercise regularly.
Cardio exercise is the ultimate mood booster. From releasing endorphins to flooding your body with feel-good hormones, exercise releases much-needed chemicals in the brain that make us happy. Your body can’t produce these chemicals on its own or store them, so sweating and inviting them out is the one way we can get these happy feelings.
Don’t underestimate the power of exercise. It is a simple yet powerful tool to maintain health. For those who struggle with anxiety or depression, exercise has been shown to decrease hopelessness, reduce stress and anxiety while elevating mood.
Find an exercise that you enjoy: Tai Chi, walking, swimming, running, or biking are great options. Just be sure to start small and increase difficulty gradually.
#2 Eat a brain-healthy diet.
A brain-healthy diet includes concentrated brain nutrients like Omega 3s, amino acids, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals. Include a balance of fresh fruits, vegetables, and high-quality, lean protein. By introducing minor changes, you can make a big difference in satisfying your body’s needs.
Here are some small habits you can develop:
- Include balanced meals of fruits, vegetables, and high-quality, lean protein.
- Avoid packaged meals and fried foods.
- When using oil, use nutritious oils such as olive oil or avocado oil, rich in Omega 3s.
- Plan weekly meals with fish, such as salmon, shrimp, or sea bass.
- Keep on hand seeds and nuts for easy snacks, such as chia seeds, hemp seeds, or flax seeds, high in Omega 3s.
And remember, a good diet is what you do eighty percent of the time. The positive effects and potential benefits of intentional living will pay off--even with incremental changes! Be sure to create healthy habits in your daily life. Once they are habits, they are much easier to live by.
#3 Use supplements to support your brain health.
In addition to healthy living and exercise, some vitamins and herbal supplements can promote health. A brain-healthy diet includes all brain nutrients like omega 3s, amino acids, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals. The brain needs healthy brain foods (and even superfood supplements) to function. Vitamin D is a helpful supplement, especially if you live in a colder climate with shorter days or in winter months when there is less sunlight.
#4 Build a practice of meditation, mindfulness, and yoga.
These mindfulness activities help reduce stress by nurturing the nervous system. By calming the body and mind, we can relax our overworked brains and restore balance to our lives. From an evolutionary standpoint, we evolved to handle short-term threats like a physical attack or natural disaster. With the advent of technology, stressors are constant.
#5 Learn a new skill or language to keep your mind active.
Keep the brain active by learning new skills and knowledge that helps to slow down mental decline in old age. By challenging your mind to stretch outside its comfort zone by trying new things, the brain creates new neural pathways to improve memory and promote a robust lifestyle. The more involved you are in mental activities and learning, the less likely your brain will decline. Keeping your mind alert can be as simple as taking a different route to work each day and noticing your surroundings.
However, the brain loves to learn so brain games are a fun way to build good brain fitness. The brain also thrives on new and novel so taking up a new hobby like painting, pottery, chess, or just taking a cooking class will enliven your brain. Research shows that when you study a new musical instrument, do crossword puzzles, challenge your mind with Sudoku, you keep your brain healthier and build new connections resulting in better memory. The good news is that when you combine these activities with loved ones and create strong social networks, the benefits are even better!
Get in touch with your dreams today with Building Healthy Brain Habits: Dream Big, Act Small.
#6 Use technology for good!
Technology is becoming more and more a part of our daily lives, but instead of scrolling through Instagram or playing video games, try downloading an iPhone app specifically designed for brain training. Or perhaps take a break at work to do a guided meditation to refresh your mind.
#7 Practice deep, rhythmic or mindful breathing.
It's mindboggling that we don't breathe consciously more often... at least not until we forget to breathe for a few minutes and feel the uncomfortable side effects of carbon dioxide levels rising in our bloodstream!
One theory suggests that short bursts of high-stress situations activate the brain’s fight or flight response causing it to think there is a threat, and therefore deeper breathing becomes a low priority. Breathing activates the relaxation or soothing response in the central nervous system, which lowers blood pressure, increases immune systems functions, and optimizes brain fitness.
Over thousands of years, the human body has utilized deep breathing to obtain a natural and relaxing state. With a little bit of practice deep breathing, the brain’s fight or flight response can be turned off, leading to optimizing brain health.
But deep breathing isn’t just about optimizing brain fitness. Deep breathing also helps with brain function. When you breathe deep, your brain experiences optimized mood, mental clarity... and an altered state of mind.
Therefore, take time to relax and practice slow, deep breathing while stilling your mind throughout your day. Here are a couple of different techniques:
Try doing rhythmic breathing for calming the brain with this exercise:
- Breathe in for three counts (count 1-2-3 with each breath).
- Hold your breath for three counts.
- Exhale for three counts.
- Hold with an empty diaphragm for three counts.
Detoxing Breathing Technique:
Each breathing pattern has a different effect on the body and mind. Try some of these recommended by The Art of Healing Touch. Add some essential oils in the air, such as lavender, for an enhanced experience.
#8 Do a mind dump.
A simple but effective relief for our brains is a simple mind dump. Conclude your workday by taking out a piece of paper. Write down all the things bothering you, worrying you, or tasks you need to get done and are pulling on you. Empty your mind.
As Daniel Amen said in Unleash the Power of the Female Brain that I’m currently listening to:
“Whenever you get a worry (a negative thought that won’t go away), write it down. The act of writing helps to crystallize it and get it out of your head. The worry is now on the paper, a tablet, computer, or phone. Once the worry is written, evaluate it for its accuracy. Is it true or realistic? If not, smile and let it stay on the paper to get it out of your head. If the worry has merit, write down three or four things you can do about the worry, and equally important, write down what you cannot do about the worry.”
Our brain requires brain exercise just like our muscles do. And to be the best version of ourselves, we need to take care of our brains. Pay attention when you need rest or sleep or when you need to revitalize yourself by discovering new things. Or simply breathe deeply.
Being intentional is necessary if you want to be brain fit! Pick one suggestion above and develop a new habit. Then another. You’ll be glad you did!
For support on building healthy brain habits or to develop greater emotional intelligence, reach out email@example.com.