Your brain is amazing. Keep good brain function with the choices you make for exercise, nutrition, sleep, mental challenges, and fun.
Doesn’t it seem as though exercise is at the top of the recommendation list for everything healthy? Well, there is a reason. Exercise is good for your heart, your circulation, your skin, your digestive system, and your brain. With physical exercise, neurotransmitters including endorphins, dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin are released. These brain chemicals play an important part in regulating your mood, motivation, pain levels, memory and concentration. A protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), increases with exercises and is key to the protection of nerve cells in the brain.
Four types of exercise are the parts making up a solid well-rounded routine.
The American Heart Association recommends 150 minutes of moderately strenuous exercise each week. Moderate exercise means that you can still talk but probably could not sing while working out. Examples include brisk walking, bike riding, dancing, swimming, hiking, and kickboxing. Monitoring your heart rate can help you understand whether or not you are in that moderate level of exercise. If you prefer vigorous exercise, then 75 minutes a week will do the trick. The AHA has convenient tables of recommended heart rates for various age groups.
The flexibility exercise routine stretches muscles so they have the range of motion for optimal functional performance. Stretching routines should be done 3-5 times a week for each major muscle group in your body. Each stretch should be held for 30-90 seconds. Tai Chi and Yoga (especially hatha, yin, or bikram style) offer opportunities for deep stretching and flexibility work.
A strength workout twice a week for each body section is recommended. Split upper and lower body up or, if bigger blocks of time are available, do a full-body strength workout. Strength training means there has to be resistance. Resistance bands and body weight such as pushups and pulls count too.
If you are doing Tai Chi or Yoga, or playing a sport like tennis, balance exercise is part of the equation. Stand still with feet together and eyes closed for one minute. This is easy to add to a daily routine. Do this routine at the beach in the sand or on top of a cushion to increase the challenge. Standing up while putting socks on is an example of how balance training can be worked into a busy schedule.
Make exercise a priority. Results are fast and help with mental clarity and concentration.
Figuring out the best nutritional method is a daunting task. What’s best? Is it low carb, high carb, keto, paleo, high fat, high protein, vegan, intermittent fasting or one of the many other variations out there?
Let’s discuss briefly some recommendations as they relate to brain health and memory. These are commonly agreed upon for general needs. They DO NOT take into consideration specific food intolerances or allergies. The gut-brain connection is strong. A growing research base of evidence (link study) suggests that what you put in your gut makes a difference in your brain.
They are widely known as necessary for brain health are the fatty acids found in some nuts and seeds, avocados, fish such as salmon, olives and others. Fatty fish and seafood additionally are a great source of the brain-boosting substances, Vitamin B and folic acid. Switch from vegetable oil to a more healthy oil for cooking, baking, and dressings. Add avocado to your salad, or chose walnuts as an afternoon snack.
Vegetables are a win no matter what type of nutritional plan you follow. Fruits and vegetables contain naturally occurring vitamins and minerals, as well as antioxidants with restorative and anti-inflammatory properties. The inherent fiber is necessary for good gut health, and therefore, brain health. Choose organic, non-GMO, locally-grown, in-season vegetables and fruits for the best bang for your buck on nutrient density. There is an increasing awareness of the harmful effects of lectin-containing fruits and vegetables such as tomatoes, squash, and soybeans. Eat these less frequently or completely eliminate them.
Limit animal protein to small quantities of lean pasture-raised organic animals. Especially, monitor consumption of red meat, which has been found to be associated with dementia in later years. Eggs have benefits for brain health if organic pasture-raised and eaten in small quantities.
Real cocoa, not sugary chocolate candy, has helpful antioxidants and raises the dopamine levels in the brain, which in turn helps to elevate mood and reduce inflammation.
Turmeric contains curcumin, a powerful anti-inflammatory, found to fight both cancer cell growth and Alzheimer’s Disease. Cinnamon and ginger act similarly. Saffron has properties that fight depression.
Red wine has resveratrol, an antioxidant. In moderation, red wine can assist with the repair of cell damage associated with aging and has neuroprotective properties.
Up to 3 cups of coffee or black tea per day is recommended for brain health. Small amounts can increase alertness. Too much caffeine, especially later in life, can have harmful effects.
No matter how well we eat, it is close to impossible to consume through food all the nutrients our brains require for optimal health. Talk to your doctor about the right nutritional supplements for your health needs.
Sleep is many times neglected and dismissed as a health matter. Proper sleep is absolutely critical for an optimally functioning brain. Proper sleep elevates mood and focus while reducing stress and distractibility. Adults should get 7-9 hours of sleep a night consistently. Our habits can greatly impact our sleep, however, and the results can be almost immediate.
This is simple. Go to bed at roughly the same time each night and wake up on the first alarm at the same time each morning. This schedule works for both early risers and night owls. The key is the consistency.
Studies have shown that avoiding the use of computer or cell phone, eating, or consuming caffeine or alcohol prior to bedtime helps us fall asleep and stay asleep better. Late afternoon naps should be avoided as well. Reading, a cup of herbal tea, or a warm bath are habits which can help with the relaxation needed to drift into sleep.
A good pillow supporting the natural curves of your neck is a must. The bedroom should be a comfortable temperature, be silent or sound enhanced with soft white noise, and should be dark.
When building muscle strength, we have to stress/challenge our muscles. The same goes for brain function. If we want to increase cognitive capacity, we must challenge our brains. This does not mean that we have to do a puzzle every morning or purchase a computerized “brain exercise program”. Those activities are good, but only if they are enjoyable. If you enjoy playing games there are loads of free brain games online.
There are so many ways to challenge the brain. If the activity feels new and difficult mentally, then it’s helping your brain to stay healthy and adaptable.
Traveling is a fabulous way to exercise your brain, especially if you are learning as your travel, such as with the Road Scholar program. Moving to a new house or city can enhance your brain function. It demands new learning. Taking a class will obviously strengthen your brain, especially if it is in a novel field. Art and music can greatly enhance your brain health. Take an art class, learn to play a musical instrument, or take dancing lessons. Many women in their prime are exploring second-act careers. Your brain loves the challenges these experiences bring.
Along with fun should come social interaction. Studies have linked long life and brain health to relationships and contentment. Happy long-term relationships and having a life purpose are protective to the brain. Fun activities reduce stress and increase the release of dopamine and serotonin in the brain, promoting not only a good feeling at the time but long-lasting brain-boosting effects.
Consider carefully how you spend your free time. Choose those activities which are enjoyable and try to avoid as much as possible the obligatory ones. Clubs, volunteer work, part-time jobs, classes, and physical activities can all be ways to incorporate fun and social engagement. Taking dance lessons, has been shown to be one of the best ways to stay young physically, emotionally, and mentally! Why…because it’s physically and mentally challenging, social, and fun!
Your brain is amazing. Keep it sharp and vibrant with the choices you make for exercise, nutrition, sleep, mental challenges, and fun.
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