We are taught so little about our most valuable asset 🧠, and yet the importance of a high functioning brain cannot be overstated.
The good news is there are lots of simple things you can do that can have a profound impact on your brain fitness. By investing small amounts of time and energy in these things, you can improve your cognitive performance, enhance your mental adaptability, and protect your long-term mental health. Much like your body, if you take care of your brain, it tends to work better on all levels.
Below is my summary of the most effective ways to do this, based on the latest research in the fields of neuroscience and cognitive psychology. It’s not a short article because there is a lot of important stuff to cover. It may be worth coming back to this list more than once. Enjoy.
The ‘SENSE’ Model™ of Brain Fitness
The 5 keys to improving your brain fitness are reflected by the ‘SENSE’ Model
- Stress Management
For each of the 5 themes, I’ll offer my top tips, based on the science. These will help you identify the areas in which you can make the biggest improvements.
Insufficient sleep is correlated with impaired logical reasoning, decision making, memory, attention, and reaction times. Sleep debt is also found to be cumulative; if you sleep for less than six hours a night for five nights in a row, you can expect your cognitive performance to drop to that of a person who hasn’t slept for 48 hours. Your goal is 8 hours every night, and for that:
- Your body: Relax your body to lower your cortisol levels, reduce your core temperature and avoid any stimulants.
- Your mind: have a minimum of 60 minutes downtime before sleep (stop working!), get your phone out of your bedroom
- Maintain a regular sleep schedule: Go to bed and wake up at the same time
Additional Sleep help:
As you exercise, your heart rate increases, your circulation improves, and more oxygen and glucose flow to your brain. This helps explain why physical exercise improves your mental performance. Exercise is also known to help prevent dementia. This is because vigorous movement increases the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that plays a significant role in learning.
- Do 20 minutes or more of moderate exercise, every day
- Do 20-30 minutes of higher intensity aerobic exercise, 2-3 times per week
- Get up and more every hour throughout your work day (sit less and walk more)
Additional Exercise resources:
The most commonly cited recommendation from research on brain health and nutrition is to follow a Mediterranean diet of plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, and oily fish. Your brain also works better when it’s well hydrated, so it’s important to drink plenty of water. The substance you need to be wary of is sugar, as chronic high blood sugar has recently been associated with Alzheimer’s disease. So eating a healthy diet isn’t just good for your body, it’s also a fundamental part of keeping your brain healthy.
- Consume a Mediterranean-style diet: primarily plants, whole grains, legumes, fruit and berries, nuts, and plenty of Omega-3 (either from fish, or plant sources such as chia seeds)
- Drink a large glass of water when you wake up and aim to drink 2 – 2.5 litres per day
- Moderate your sugar consumption
4. Stress Management
Stress leads to poor decision-making and adversely affects your capacity to think rationally. Chronic stress can even lead to worrying signs of brain damage so managing your stress, and in particular, regulating your physiology are essential to maintaining your mental performance and decision making under pressure, as well as your long term mental health. Stress and resilience are such large topics it’s difficult to simplify the research into just three tips, so here are my top ten recommendations:
- Make time for physical relaxation, and learn to regulate your physiology
- Make more time for doing what you love, and invest in your emotional well-being
- Practice gratitude
- Learn how to reframe challenges (search ‘cognitive reframing’)
- Practice meditation and mindfulness as they can help you regulate your emotional responses
- Manage your workload – set up systems that allow you to manage your projects, work with deep focus and then switch off
- Do a weekly ‘brain sweep’ and have a task and project management system that you trust
- Give your brain sufficient down time – especially in the evenings and weekends.
- Limit your use of your smartphone.Ttry not to use it at all(!) in the first and last hour of your day
- Limit your use of social media and the news
- Spend as much time as possible with your friends and the people you love, and remain socially active
Additional Stress Management resources:
What I’m getting at here is the importance of harnessing your neuroplasticity. Your brain is like a muscle in the sense that it adapts to how you use it. So it’s important to challenge your brain and to continue to invest in learning and skill development, as this helps keep your brain young and adaptable. It also makes sense to invest time in training your brain over time to improve your ongoing experience.
- Learn, develop new skils and continually challenge your brain
- Seek novelty and the unfamiliar
- Practice meditation and mindfulness (they are the best form of brain training we know of)
Additional Experience resources:
📺 How to practice meditation and mindfulness
Your smart phone
I’ve mentioned your phone already, but feel it deserves another mention. I’ve probably run over 500 workshops in the last decade or so, helping people work smarter, develop their creative thinking, build their resilience and improve their well-being. In all these workshops, it is very rare that our relationships with our phones doesn’t come up, and something has become blindingly obvious to me. For most people, most of the time, their relationship with their mobile phone is negatively impacting their experience, their mental health, and their brain fitness.
I get this sense because people have shared with me how much their phones disrupt their sleep, cause them anxiety, compromise their attention, prevent them from switching off, compromise their sense of work life balance, jeopardise the depth of their relationships, increase their stress and create a sense of being ‘always on’. In the context of my workshops, it’s easy to see how these factors make us less productive, less creative and less resilient.
I find myself asking the same question of my training cohorts, to try to get a sense of their generalised perception of their relationship with their phone. The question is this:
“Would you recommend how you use your phone to someone you loved, or to someone for whom their mental health was your responsibility?” The answer is generally a resounding ‘no’.
We’ve found ourselves living a life of incongruence. Our daily habits are not something we would recommend to someone else. If we do want to take care of our brain, protect our mental health and live a happy life, we need to start to reverse this trend.
So, over the coming week, what specifially could you change to improve your relationship with your phone?
- Turn all your alerts and notifications off (yes, you read that right – all of them)
- Check your phone at set points throughout the day (maybe start with once per hour?)
- Use your phone less each day
- Manage the expectations of others if necessary
- Don’t check your phone for the first 30 minutes after waking up
- Don’t check your phone in the last 60 minutes before falling asleep
- Charge your phone out of the bedroom
- Remove your ‘addiction’ apps
- Limit your media consumption
- Stop ‘media multitasking’
- Have tech vacations
Pick one thing you’re going to commit to, and make that change as soon as you can.
Now let’s review the whole model. Your cognitive fitness is very much up to you. You know the key factors that contribute to a healthy brain, as well as the behaviours that correlate most strongly with improving your brain fitness.
- The 5 keys to improving your brain fitness, and consequently improving mental performance, learning and adaptability, and protecting your brain over time, are Sleep, Exercise, Nutrition, Stress management, and Experience (SENSE).
How will you now apply these insights?
- Based on your experience over the past two week, rate yourself out of 10 for each.
- Decide how you will improve your score in at least one of the areas in the next week.
- Review your score again in a week.
🧠 Live and work with your brain in mind.