Get brain fit

24 June 2019

 

Like our bodies, our brains need regular exercise to stay healthy and perform at their best. Research has shown that eating the right foods, getting regular exercise and including mindfulness activities like meditation may improve memory and concentration and even combat anxiety and depression. Good brain health can certainly help us through life’s challenging moments, so let’s look at some of the ways you can keep your noodle in top shape.

It's never too late to meditate
Learning for life
Healthy body, healthy mind
The good oil
The last laugh

It’s never too late to meditate

In our increasingly busy lives, meditation helps clear the mind, allowing our brains to process, organise and store information more effectively. Research suggests that practicing mindfulness and meditation may produce changes in parts of the brain associated with attention, emotion regulation and self-awareness.

Learning to meditate takes commitment and time, but there’s no need to lock yourself away in a Tibetan monastery, as there are plenty of websites, apps and YouTube channels aimed at helping you meditate.

Headspace.com is one of our favourites. It’s the world’s most frequently downloaded mindfulness app that lets you build your own personal program for better sleep, managing stress, controlling eating and much more. Headspace introduces you to the basics of mindfulness and meditation with Take 10, a set of short sessions that guide you through the foundations of meditation. Completing a session unlocks the next meditation, so there’s no skipping ahead. Headspace describes itself as a “gym membership for the mind” and like a gym, you pay a monthly subscription.

Learning for life

Whether you’re twenty or eighty, you’re never too old to learn new tricks.

As we get older, lifelong learning enables us to advance our careers, keep up with technology, make new friends and establish valuable relationships. If you enjoy the social nature of the classroom, most colleges, tech’s and universities offer continued education programmes. If you prefer to learn at your own pace, you can tap into any of the excellent free or paid courses available online.

Learning a new language forces us to engage parts of our brain that have been on ‘autopilot’ since we were kids. Duolingo.com is the most popular free language tutor, offering courses in over 30 languages (and that’s just for English speakers). The courses are ad-supported or you can opt for the paid version which removes the ads and provides additional features.

Picking up a musical instrument is great for coordinating our brains and muscles as well as providing lifelong enjoyment. Yousician.com is the world's largest music educator, with interactive music courses for guitar, piano, ukulele and bass. The app analyses your playing and provides you with instant feedback and guidance. Of course for some of us there’s no substitute for the one on one interaction you get with a real music teacher.

Another way to keep your brain in train and fit for life is to use brain training aps designed to exercise your mental muscle in ways many of us may not have contemplated in a while. One such app is lumosity.com. Powered by AI technology and backed by peer-reviewed research, it promises to sharpen every day skills like memory, attention and problem solving. While limited access is free, you are required to subscribe to one of its paid plans to get full access.

Healthy body, healthy mind

Looking after your health and fitness can have a positive effect on your state of mind. Physical activity increases the flow of oxygen to your brain and at the same time, boosts your endorphins; the chemicals that make you feel great after a run or workout. For this reason, it’s not surprising that people who are in good physical shape also tend to enjoy a higher level of mental agility. A regular exercise programme not only gives you a more positive outlook on life, it can also help beat stress and combat depression.

The good oil

We’ve all heard of fatty acids, but what do they do exactly? Having sufficient levels of essential EFA and DHA fatty acids is thought to help control your cortisol and serotonin levels while low levels have been linked to an increased risk of dementia, Alzheimer's and memory loss.

Essential EFA and DHA fatty acids occur naturally in a range of foods that contain Omega 3 fatty acids, but they’re especially plentiful in oily fish like salmon and sardines. If you're vegetarian or vegan, you may wish to add seeds like linseed and chia to your diet or consider a plant-based Omega 3 supplement.

The last laugh

Having a good laugh engages several areas of the brain at once, from processing images and words to activating the motor functions that produce the actual laugh itself. Laughing relaxes our muscles and stabilises the flow of stress hormones like cortisol. It also produces dopamine, the ‘reward hormone’, that regulates mood, motivation, learning and attention.

Laughing can reduce for short-term memory loss because we tend to forget things when we’re under stress. In a university study in California, 20 people watched a funny video for 20 minutes before they took a memory test, while another 20 did not. The people who laughed at the video, performed significantly better in short-term memory tests and their stress levels were significantly lower.

So remember to have a laugh today. Your brain will thank you for it.