There is an obvious connection between your habits and your physical health, but how do your habits affect your mental well-being? Are you rested and centered, or moody and irritable? Can you focus on a task at hand, or are you easily distracted? Do your thoughts have force and energy, or are they sluggish? And is there anything you can do to change the state of your mind?
How well your brain functions is directly related to your overall health and well-being; which in turn is often a result of your habits and lifestyle. Mental fitness, like physical fitness, can be improved by conscious choices.
Mental fitness is one aspect of mental health. Some characteristics of a mentally fit mind are:
- Vigorous mental energy
- An ability to focus and maintain concentration
- Attention to detail paired with the ability to think globally
- Quick assimilation of new information
- A strong memory
- A sense of curiosity
- And self-awareness, coupled with self-control
Many of these characteristics can be found in people who have positions of leadership as innovators, inventors, entrepreneurs, and in anyone who brings passion and energy to the workplace, and who takes satisfaction in a job well done.
As it is with physical health, some people seem to easily maintain a healthy and energetic state of mind. For the rest of us, it takes some work. Fortunately, you can improve your cognitive functioning.
Even better, many of the choices you make to improve your physical health will also benefit your mental health. Research suggests that while you cannot change the brain you were born with, you can tune it up to perform optimally.
One of the biggest influences on mental fitness is physical health. Numerous studies have found a strong positive correlation between physical activity and healthy brain functioning. Engaging in regular exercise yields a long term benefit of enhanced brain health; and a short term, easily accessible benefit of an immediate boost to brain functioning.
The brain of a person who is physically active shows improved functioning in several areas. Bursts of activity can sharpen brain function, resulting in reduced depression, improved sense of well-being, reduced anxiety, greater ability to handle stress, improved memory, and increased ability to process new information.
Additionally, physical activity can have a beneficial effect on sleep, which in turn enhances brain function. Exercise can provide an immediate boost to cognitive functions such as planning, decision making, and performing tasks requiring short- term memory.
Long term, the brain of an active person is slower to age, is less likely to suffer dementia, and exhibits greater mental acuity than the brain of a sedentary person.
Arthur F. Kramer, Ph.D., an expert on the connection between exercise and cognitive functioning, coauthored a review of scientific literature published in the August 2007 issue of “Trends of Cognitive Science”. In the review he stated that even a “modest” amount of aerobic exercise will “increase brain volume, improve brain function, and enhance learning, memory and attention”.
In addition, the changes to the brain provided by light to moderate exercise can last for several hours. This connection between physical health and cognitive function is so well documented that many forward thinking companies have incorporated gymnasiums or physical fitness programs into the work day.
The easiest remedy, therefore, for that mid-afternoon brain slump is to put your work aside and take a brisk twenty minute walk. You will return refreshed and mentally re-energized.
Diet also plays a very important role in how well your brain functions. It matters what you eat, when you eat it, and how much of it you have.
Sugars And Carbs
Food immediately affects your blood sugar level. When you eat certain foods, such as simple carbohydrates and sugars found in bleached flour and sugary snacks, your blood sugar level rises rapidly and you feel energized.
However these sugars and simple carbs cause blood sugar levels to fall as rapidly as they rise. So when you eat a sugar donut you feel a brief burst of energy, followed quickly by an energy crash. Complex carbohydrates on the other hand, cause a slow and steady rise of blood sugar levels.
This steady rate of blood sugar provides for sustained mental energy during the day. Complex carbs are the kinds found in whole grains, like whole wheat bread, and in vegetables and fruit.
Protein also plays a crucial role in brain functioning. Protein is literally brain food. Proteins contain amino acids that stimulate the production of certain brain chemicals called neurotransmitters.
Neurotransmitters relay information along neural pathways – they help you to think. Acetylcholine, Dopamine, and Serotonin are three key neurotransmitters that are obtained by eating protein. They improve movement, attention, learning, mental energy and alertness, and they can reduce anxiety and restlessness.
A few ounces of protein is all you need, which is the amount found in an egg, a cup of yogurt, a few slices of cheese, or a couple of handfuls of nuts.
Finally, fats are also essential for a healthy brain. However not all fats are equal. Look for Omega 3 fatty acids. An adequate level of Omega 3 helps alleviate depression, and boosts memory and mood. Omega 3 is found in oily fish such as salmon, tuna, mackerel, and anchovies.
Taken together, it is clear that complex carbs like those found in whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, together with proteins, and fatty acids, are the key foods to eat in order to boost your brain’s performance. Starting your day with whole grain cereal, fruit, and milk will give you steady energy and sharpened brain function throughout the morning.
Likewise, a midmorning snack and lunch should ideally include complex carbs and small amounts of protein. A chicken caesar or a nicoise salad are good choices. Or have a hearty bean or vegetable soup along with whole grain bread.
Brain research also supports the importance of breakfast. A healthy breakfast fuels the morning’s work, providing the physical and mental energy to perform well. Additionally, it has been shown that it is better to eat several small portions throughout the day rather than one or two large meals.
A large meal takes a great deal of energy to digest, drawing it from other functions, including cognitive. That is why you often feel drowsy after eating a large meal.
Caffeine, too, has a positive correlation with heightened brain activity, particularly with increased focus and enhanced powers of reason. However, like food, it is better to drink small amounts of caffeine over the day rather than drinking great quantities at one time. Too much caffeine will not improve your ability to be on your mental toes. An excess of caffeine can cause anxiety, restlessness, and an inability to concentrate.
Also, watch your intake of alcohol. It is not wise to mix alcohol with your work day. The day of two martini lunches is well gone, as drinking is a depressant. Though it may temporarily elevate your mood, an alcohol high leads rapidly to afternoon burnout.
At night, having a drink may help you to relax, and may allow you to sleep more easily. One or two drinks should not adversely affect your ability to perform the next day. But more than that can have a negative effect on sleep and on your ability to think well, or think at all, the following day.
Speaking of sleep, studies show that adequate rest is essential for peak cognitive performance. Most people need at least seven hours of uninterrupted sleep. If you are not getting enough, make sure that you don’t sabotage your sleep with bad habits. Cut back on alcohol, banish late night coffee, and avoid heavy meals or sugary late night snacks. Turn off the TV and unplug the computer well before bedtime, and instead choose less stimulating ways to end the day.
Try reading or listening to calming music as you get ready to sleep. Sleeping well and waking rested is highly correlated with the ability to concentrate, and to process new information. A good night’s sleep also supports an enhanced mood and abundant mental energy.
Finally, try to manage your levels of stress. High stress has a negative impact on all aspects of your health, including your cognitive processes. Take short breaks during stressful work periods to rest your mind as you exercise your body.
Put work problems out of your mind during these times. Take a walk in the park, calm your mind with relaxing music, or shoot some hoops to help redirect your thoughts. When you take a break from intense focus and relax your mind completely, you give your brain a chance to recharge so that you can return with renewed energy and the ability to focus again.
Being present in each moment can also help you to reduce stress. Stressful thoughts can plague us all day. Frequently we are stressed about some aspect of future or past events. This is a form of mental clutter which distracts your mind and keeps it from working well.
Stop worrying about tomorrow’s tasks, for you will deal with them tomorrow. And don’t waste the present moment in regret over mistakes. Learn from your mistakes and then move on. Practice bringing your attention fully into the present moment.
Giving the present moment your complete attention is similar to narrowing the beam of a flashlight to a sharp focus. Set mental chatter aside, and discipline your mind to focus completely on the task at hand.
At home, you can enhance mental functioning and relieve stress simultaneously by encouraging a sense of playfulness, creativity and curiosity. Play games with your children, reach for a brain teaser, or read a book to learn something completely new. Develop interests and hobbies that use different parts of your brain than you use in your daily work.
If you stare at a computer monitor all day, avoid coming home to the Internet. Instead, ride a bike or pull weeds in the garden for an hour. Let yourself daydream. Albert Einstein, arguably the greatest intellect of the twentieth century, swore by the power of playful and creative thinking. He wrote “When I examine myself and my methods of thought, I come to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than my talent for absorbing positive knowledge.”
So, go out and play. Eat well, sleep well, and stay fit. Keep your brain stimulated, but just as importantly, let it rest. When you work, work hard. When you play, fully enter into the spirit of play. The result will be a healthier brain, with more balance, less stress, better focus and sharper thinking.