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  • Patricia Faust

Cognitive Fitness: Yes You Can!


A few years ago when I talked about neuroplasticity and the power of the brain to change itself – everyone was amazed. Now the era of brain awareness has finally arrived. Even though I still get astonished looks at this revelation, there are others who have turned off to the idea. So what, big deal – it is just another ploy to get me to change. Well here is the new revelation: the brain is even more dynamic than we expected years ago – but we have to work to get results!

Seriously, our brain is constantly changing and adapting to our environment, but we need to be consistent with our thoughts and actions to actually bring about a lasting change. There seems to be agreement that it takes 21 days of repetition and consistency to form a new neural pathway. Now that begs the question – we can’t see our brain – how do we know we have created a change? How do we know that we have a fit, healthy brain?


Everything You Do Matters to Your Brain

Take a look at your daily life. Everything you do matters to your brain – good or bad. Do you sit around worrying about your weight while you are watching TV and munching on high-fat snacks? Guess what – your brain won’t like that. You will be sluggish, unhappy, stressed out and your brain will adapt to that environment. You will lose brain volume, have memory problems, not be as productive at work, not be interesting to your spouse, kids, or friends, and probably end up going to the doctor more often. If that is how you are going to treat your brain, your brain will reciprocate.


Being Brain Fit

What does it look like when you are ‘brain fit’? Brain fitness is that state of awareness that you are performing well cognitively and emotionally. You are running on all cylinders, maintaining a mental edge, staying sharp, aging successfully. Aging is a broad term in this context because our brain doesn’t know how old we are. Your brain ages in response to lifestyle, chronic diseases, stress, and genes. So your chronological age may be in the forties but your brain age may be in the sixties because you live a hard life. You have to take responsibility for how you live and the impact it makes on your brain.


Strategic Plan to Reclaim Your Brain

Now, your brain is very cool! You treat it better and it will respond to that too. So if you make a strategic plan to reclaim your brain – your brain will respond – that is the beauty of neuroplasticity. It requires concentrated effort however. You cannot be complacent about your brain and the life that you live. You can create new neural pathways and grow new brain cells. But you have to be all in – not wishy-washy about it. Repetition and consistency will create new neural pathways. And this is where a brain healthy lifestyle (physical exercise, mental stimulation, nutrition, socialization, sleep, and stress reduction) all play an important part. When you put the effort in to build a better brain, you will experience better health overall. Again, it doesn’t make any difference what your age is. It is totally up to you and your commitment.


Incorporating a Brain Healthy Lifestyle

How can you incorporate a brain healthy lifestyle without it seeming like such a hassle? You will have to think differently about how you do or don’t do certain things during the day. But this is a program that needs to be implemented slowly so that you don’t feel overwhelmed. An enriched environment – one that is novel and complex (like your workplace!) will put you in the right circumstances to challenge your brain. If you are not in an enriched environment each day, then you need to create that environment for yourself. This can be accomplished by volunteering, mentoring, consulting or any other activity that challenges your brain. When you are putting your brain through its paces, it will respond. You will be more engaged, more productive, feel energized. You also might feel stress. But being aware of stressors gives you the upper hand in diffusing them. You want to keep your energy high so you need to be more mindful of the food you eat and the exercise you get. A brain health lifestyle is very synergistic in that each piece fits together and the sum of your actions is greater than doing each piece separately. For example: you grow new brain cells in your hippocampus, center of new learning and memory, when you engage in physical exercise. If you don’t challenge yourself to learn new things, then the brain gets out its pruner and starts clipping away at the cells and pathways you haven’t used. Grow those cells and then use them. These activities will enable you to build cognitive reserve – thicker synaptic connections that keep your brain more flexible and ultimately offers some protection from neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.


The Cognitive Fitness Strategy

The following is the Cognitive Fitness Strategy: An Action Plan for Brain Health based on the Dana Alliance/Conference Board’s publication ‘Your Brain at Work’.

Write it down: Putting your goals in writing makes them more meaningful. Adding why you want to achieve each goal is a real motivator.

Take baby steps: You’ll feel overwhelmed if you try to address every aspect of brain health at once. Set priorities.

Give yourself a timeframe: And remember: That implies giving yourself enough time to work at and master your goals.

Be realistic: People who try to do too much too soon often get discouraged and give up altogether. Don’t be a victim of your own ambition. If your goals seem impossible, revise them.

Now determine your baseline. Think about how you measure up against the healthy brain practices below:

Social Interaction:

Who did I see today, and for what purposes?

What did I do to reconnect with someone I care about today?

Physical Activity:

How many minutes did I walk today, including around the office?

How did I work exercise into my day?

Did I “walk and talk” at work, rather than emailing or phoning?

Cognitive Stimulation:

What did I learn today?

What routine task did I approach differently today?

Did I challenge my mind? Did I do anything just for fun?

Stress Management:

How was my stress level today?

What caused me the greatest stress today? What triggered it?

How did I cope? How did I relax?

Sleep:

How well did I sleep last night? How Long? Did I awaken during the night?

If sleep was poor, do I know why?

Did I feel drowsy during the day?

Did I nap?

How well you answer these questions may help you determine which areas of brain health you need to focus on as you map out your cognitive fitness plan.

(Your Brain at Work, the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives and The Conference Board)

References:

6 Surprising Things that Affect Your Brain. Retrieved February 14, 2016 from http://www.care2.com/greenliving/6-surprising-things-that-affect-your-brain.html

Your Brain at Work. The Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives and The Conference Board. Retrieved February 14, 2016 from http://www.brainline.org/content/2009/03/your-brain-work_pageall.html

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