Your brain is a gift. When functioning properly, this large organ allows us to feel emotions, think critically, recall memories, and form relationships.
As with anything else, caring for our brains isn’t some big, one-time event. Proper care is founded in regular, repeatable habits. Our health is an investment, and we build it up the same way we fill a piggy bank: One day at a time.
Everyone knows how to exercise their bodies. While we may not all be experts in fitness, even the most unhealthy person will take a lap around the block every now and then. Run, lift weights, be active. Those are the basics.
But how do we exercise our brains? What are the basics?
Here are 5 easy steps to building a healthier brain!
Your brain is an organ, just like your heart and lungs. Organs are biological machines, and just like any other machine, they need fuel to run properly.
Research shows that foods rich in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, flavanols, and omega-3 fatty acids can help protect the brain. To improve brain health, try eating leafy greens, eggs, fish, nuts, and berries. These foods can help improve memory, concentration, and overall brain health.
Some studies even suggest that diet can slow brain aging by 7.5 years and reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s.
Berries appear to be especially beneficial. A study performed on 16,000 adults over a 20 year period found that older adults who ate the most blueberries and strawberries had the slowest rates of cognitive decline.
Surprise, surprise! Physical exercise isn’t just about stronger muscles. It also helps build a stronger mind.
Exercise triggers the release of beneficial endorphins such as dopamine, norepinephrine, serotonin, and acetylcholine in the brain, all of which are natural stress buffers. If you’re feeling anxious, hit the gym!
Physical activity mimics our evolutionary response to stress. People used to spend lots of time running from stuff that wanted to eat them. We're used to pairing stress with physical activity. Exercise helps us manage these stress responses and trains us to not be overwhelmed by them in other situations.
Exercise also promotes neurogenesis. As we exercise, our brain forms new neural connections. Neurons are what our brain uses to send and receive messages, and new, improved connections can lead to improvements in learning and memory.
Exercise Your Brain (By Reading!)
Reading can save your life! And no, we’re not just talking about a Bible in your coat pocket stopping a bullet. One study observed a 20% reduction in mortality in participants who regularly read books compared to those who did not read books.
Interestingly, the same study noted that “any level of book reading gave a significantly stronger survival advantage than reading periodicals.” Reading books requires extra effort from your brain. Following plots, linking ideas, recognizing themes and foreshadowing, creating images and scenes in the mind, all these are like taking your brain to the gym.
Another study tracked the reading and writing habits of 300 older adults. After the participants’ deaths, researchers examined their brains for evidence of dementia. Those participants who reported reading more
showed the fewest signs of dementia. In addition, remaining an avid reader into old age reduced memory decline by more than 30%.
But what if you’re just not a reader? Fear not! New research shows that daily reading can train your brain to love it! And that’s not all. As non-readers become readers, their brains actually change. They gain white matter in the language center of the brain and their brain structure improves.
Sleep is one of the most important memory and learning resources we have as human beings. That’s why it’s troubling that the average American is barely getting 6 hours of sleep, down from nearly 8 hours a century ago.
The research is clear. An adult needs at least 7 hours of sleep a night. Less than that results in all sorts of negative effects including a massive decrease in our ability to fight off disease. Underslept people die earlier, are sick more often, and are less happy than their properly slept neighbors.
During sleep, our brains flush out harmful toxins that build up throughout the day. Information from our day is sorted and stored in long-term memory. Sleep is like hitting the save button on our memories. Without it, our brains lose the ability to soak up new information.
Sleep also allows our brains to test out new connections. During sleep, our brain is capable of rewiring itself for new modes of thought. Have you ever been told to sleep on a problem? This is why! After sleep, your brain is capable of creating solutions to previously impenetrable problems.
Have you ever meditated? You should! Meditation is more popular today than ever. Regular meditation is associated with an increased ability to manage stress and anxiety, increased productivity, and increased creativity. It can even help improve your relationships!
But the benefits aren’t just anecdotal. There is research backing up the benefits of meditation for your brain. One 2012 study observed that people who practiced meditation for many years had more folds in the outer layer of their brain. This may increase the brain’s ability to process information.
Another study found that meditation created a widespread effect that encompassed regions throughout the entire brain. At first, it may sound impossible, but remember that our brains are plastic. No, not that kind of plastic. Rather, our brains are capable of changing in response to how we use them. A stressed brain looks different from a peaceful brain, but we can also create a peaceful brain by engaging in calming habits like meditation.
No one can escape the effects of aging. Cognitive decline is as inevitable as physical decline, but we don’t have to just accept it. The habits listed in this article are a shield which can protect you against the worst of old-age’s deteriorating effects.
Do you want to stay sharp so that you can continue to enjoy life as you get older? Whether you achieve that goal or not depends on the habits you develop today.