Last week was BRAIN AWARENESS WEEK, so I’m curious – how aware of your brain were you last week?

• How well did you care for your brain last week? 

• How deliberate were you with how you used it

• How much time did you invest in its development?


We are taught so little about our most valuable asset, and yet the importance of a high functioning brain cannot be overstated, right?

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. Excuse the length of this piece but there is a lot of important stuff to cover. It may be worth coming back to this list more than once. Enjoy.

The ‘SENSES’ Model

The SIX keys to improving brain fitness are best remembered by using your ‘SENSES’

  1. Sleep
  2. Exercise
  3. Nutrition
  4. Stress Management
  5. Experience
  6. Social

For each of the 6 themes, I’ll now offer my top tips, based on the science. These will help you identify the areas in which you can make the biggest improvements.

1. Sleep

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.

  • Get 8 hours of sleep every night
  • Ensure your sleep is of  depth and quality (avoid sleep disruptors in the evening, such as alcohol and sugar)
  • Maintain a regular sleep schedule: Go to bed and wake up at the same time

Additional Sleep help:

How to improve your sleep

2. Exercise

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:

Exercise and your brain

How to set up the habits you want

3. Nutrition

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.

  • Drink a large glass of water when you wake up and aim to drink 2 – 2.5 litres per day
  • Moderate your sugar consumption
  • Eat 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)

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
  • 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, and try not to use it at all(!) in the first and last hours 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 (more on this in a moment…)

Additional Stress Management resources:

How to regulate your physiology

How to prioritise your psychological recovery

Why gratitude helps improve resilience

How to practice meditation and mindfulness

5. Experience

Experience is also a large topic(!), but 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 and develop new skills
  • Seek novelty and the unfamiliar
  • Seek to improve your relationship with yourself – practice self compassion, understand your own worth and challenge any negative self-talk

6. Social

You are a social animal and your brain is wired to thrive within a community of others. When you’re young, regular socialisation is a part of everyday life, but as you get older it becomes more important to proactively invest in the relationships that mean the most to you. Regular socialisation will help keep your brain young and adaptable, and will also help improve all aspects of emotional and mental well-being. It may come as no surprise that the volumes of literature on the topic of happiness find that the quality of our relationships is one of the highest correlates of human happiness.

  • Invest time and energy in your closest relationships, your family and your friends
  • Invest time and energy in support groups; these may consist of friends, family, colleagues at work, or your local community
  • Offer support to others when you can, and don’t be afraid to ask for help yourself

Summary

So, now you know your cognitive fitness is very much up to you. You also know the key factors that contribute to a healthy brain, as well as the behaviours that correlate most strongly with improving your brain fitness.

So how will you now apply these insights?

  • The 6 keys to improving your cognitive fitness are Sleep, Exercise, Nutrition, Stress management, Experience and Socialisation (SENSES).
  • 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 two weeks.
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