Brain boost basics
So many of us are torn between juggling heavy workloads, nurturing relationships, keeping up with family responsibilities and then just barely squeezing in time for the things we enjoy as individuals. All that stress can zap our concentration, make us irritable or depressed, and harm our relationships—including the professional ones we’ve forged at work. (Here’s more on how stress really affects your brain.) “Working out areas of the brain before a full day can set us on a path of increased agility and flexibility in our thinking and enable us to communicate more calmly and effectively with our colleagues,” says Jennifer Wolkin, PhD, a New York City-based clinical neuropsychologist. Fold a mix of these simple activities into your morning routine and you’ll find yourself working smarter from the get-go. (And don't miss these 50 secrets your brain wishes you knew.)
Relax with a good read
Istock/BraunS In our fast-paced day and age, it’s hard to remember to unplug and take time for the simple things that relax and stimulate our mind. Reading is certainly one of those—be it a chapter book, newspaper, or online article. “Some of the best activities to perform are ones that enrich the brain with new information, like reading,” says Jason Liauw, MD, a neurosurgeon at Saddleback Memorial Medical Center in Laguna Hills, California. “Taking in a good book or the morning paper is not only a calming way to start your day, but it also can help you reorient your priorities, taking you momentarily out of the daily grind from yesterday before today’s begins.” Most importantly, reading can also cause a frameshift in your mind, so that when you’re in the middle of your day, you may be able to look at your routine and tasks through a different lens. Get a headstart with these 18 good books you can read in a day.
We all know important a role exercise plays in our health and mood, but there are some additional brain-boosting reasons to sneak in a sweat session before work. “Exercise actually alters brain chemistry and has even been likened to the effect of taking antidepressants,” says Dr. Wolkin. “It signals the release of several key neurotransmitters, many of which play a vital role in keeping our brain sharp as we age.” Exercise also helps pump blood flow and oxygen to the brain, allowing our grey matter to work to its highest capacity, which translates to better and sharper decision making, judgment and memory. One study that combined memory training with yoga for older adults found significant improvement in overall memory performance, suggesting that exercise helped boost the effects of brain training. Here are five more benefits to working out in the morning.
While it's been around since the dawn of time, only recently have scientists focused on understanding the extent to which meditation can help improve attention, concentration, reduce anxiety and depression and improve our overall psychological makeup. “Studies have found that the amygdala, known as the brain’s ‘fight or flight’ center and the seat of our fearful and anxious emotions, decreases in brain cell volume after mindfulness practice,” says Dr. Wolkin. “The impact mindfulness exerts on our brain is born from routine—a slow, steady and consistent reckoning of our realities, and the ability to take a step back, become more aware, more accepting, less judgemental and less reactive.” Meditators also show a greater ability to recall information faster, leading researchers to believe that the ability to quickly ‘screen out’ mental noise, allows the working memory to search and find information needed more quickly and efficiently, says Daniel Amen, Ph.D., renowned brain expert, double-board-certified psychiatrist, physician, and author of Time for Bed Sleepyhead. You'll want to check out these other habits you can pick up for a healthy brain, too.
Play classical music in the background
Istock/Andrey Popov The gentle, peaceful sounds of classical works from the likes of Mozart and Beethoven have long been touted as beneficial to the brain and productivity in general. The most famous study involves the so-called Mozart effect, found that listening to classical music can enhance a person’s spatial-temporal reasoning, or their ability to think long-term and abstractly. And another study by the University of Illinois found that listening to music in all types of work and professions increased work output by 6 percent. “Listening to classical music while getting dressed in the morning or exercising is a one-two punch of neural circuitry that’s been shown by researchers to significantly improve verbal fluency, cognitive functioning and overall focus and concentration,” says Dian Griesel, PhD, entrepreneur and long-recognized business and health spokesperson. Don’t miss the other ways music can keep you calm, healthy, and happy.
Play a fast logic-based game
Lifelong learners are definitely onto something, as continued education—not only the kind that involves a classroom, instructor, and giant tuition bill—promotes brain health and creates new neural connections. “Even just taking a stab at a crossword puzzle or taking online quizzes that challenge your mind, can help build cognitive reserves,” says Dr. Wolkin. The biggest bang for the brain are tasks that are not only challenging, but are varied and novel—think Sudoku, or memory-recall games or apps. “It’s important to keep brain-boosting activities constantly changing with increasing complexity as well as cross-training brain activities that use different parts of the brain,” says Kristin M. Mascotti, MD, quality medical officer at Miller’s Children’s and Women’s Hospital, in Long Beach, California. “Consistency is key, and many of these techniques can be done in just a few minutes every day with different skills tested on different days.” Here are more than a dozen little brain games to get you started.
Make a gratitude list
When you bring your attention to the things in your life for which you’re grateful, your brain actually works better. Crazy, right? “Brain imaging studies show that negative thought patterns change the brain in a negative way, but that conversely, practicing gratitude literally helps you have a brain to be grateful for,” says Dr. Amen. Every day, write down five things you’re grateful for—whether that’s your dog, your job, the fact that the construction outside your apartment has finally ceased, etc. Research from the University of Pennsylvania found that when people did this exercise, they noticed a significant positive difference in their level of happiness in just three weeks. Other researchers have found that people who express gratitude on a regular basis are healthier, more optimistic, make more progress towards their goals, have a greater sense of well-being and are more helpful to others. Now that’s some serious incentive! Check out these proven health benefits of gratitude.
Get a good night’s rest
IStock/PeopleImagesIt sounds obvious, but a U.S. Gallup poll found that a shocking 40 percent of Americans get less than the seven hours recommended by the National Sleep Foundation. “Sleep is proven in countless studies to help our ability to recall—which directly affects our capability to control both our behavior and learning,” Dr. Griesel. “Sleep deficits actually result in performance comparable to intoxication.” The best way to prime your body for a killer work performance the following day is to stick to a sleep schedule that doesn't change all that much on the weekends and to practice a relaxing bedtime ritual, like reading a book or watching the news before bed. Make sure your room is dark and cool at an ideal temperature of around 65 degrees.
Next, don't miss these 30 facts about your brain that will blow your mind.