With so much talk about fitness training, dropping a few kilos or building lean muscle, there may be one crucial workout missing; training for your brain. Hilary Simmons explores.

Pulling focus: how to train your brain

 

In ancient Greece, where the first Olympic Games were held, physical wellbeing and mental wellbeing went hand in hand. The phrase ‘mens sana in corpore sano’, which translates to ‘a healthy mind in a healthy body’, was the ideal people aspired to. The widely accepted tenet that there was a close relationship between physical health and mental power facilitated the growth of fitness throughout ancient Greece – and this was a civilisation that prized physical perfection like no other in history.

The ideal is still one we can strive towards today: that there must be a balance and harmony between body and soul for peak performance to be attained. A healthy brain is essential to a healthy body. So it makes sense that a healthy brain needs exercise, similar to the muscles and systems you target with dumbbells and cardio.

Despite this metaphor, it is important to note that the brain is not actually a muscle; but given that evidence suggests the organ can be trained similar to how you would train your quads, it is often thought of as one. This is where the ‘use it or lose it’ principle applies: if you don’t actively engage your brain – at work, play or both – its capacity for engagement lessens. Our brains can atrophy  – or waste away – as a result of the degeneration of cells, or due to underuse or neglect.

If you don’t fancy your wits literally withering away, there’s good news: adhering to a ‘brain-healthy’ lifestyle and performing regular, targeted brain exercises can increase your brain’s cognitive reserve.

 

BRAIN TRAIN

So how do you treat your brain like a muscle given it’s not likely to respond well to squats? On top of a healthy diet and regular exercise, mental stimulation is what it takes to strengthen synaptic networks.

Research suggests that mental stimulation can improve brain function and reduce the risk of cognitive decline and related diseases. It is a generally accepted scientific fact that the brain shrinks with age and that associated changes occur at all levels, from molecules to morphology. In fact, the volume of the brain and its weight declines with age at a rate of around five per cent per decade after age 40. Scary stuff. This is costly in terms of the mental acuity required to make decisions, plan, organise, and pay attention to and remember details.

Like so many of the symptoms of ageing, people used to assume brain shrinkage was something over which we had little control. In recent years, however, there has been a bulk of research on how to tap in to your own neuroplasticity – that is, the brain’s ability to modify its connections or ‘rewire’ itself – with a view to enhancing mental fitness and preventing age-related memory decline. It turns out that instead of simply accepting that the bundles of nerves in your brain inevitably deteriorate with age, you can help slow – or even prevent – the process by making smart lifestyle changes and embracing brain fitness.

“Although we do need to accept that some of these changes are influenced by genetic predispositions and are part of the normal ageing process, there are ways to delay and even prevent age-related changes to your brain,” says clinical psychologist Dr Lillian Nejad.

“We are born with certain capacities and vulnerabilities, and we do develop a personality that is influenced by nature and nurture; but our brain has the capacity to change, and it’s not the number of brain cells that are important, it’s the neural pathways. Your neural pathways can actually regenerate and you have the power to make this happen through both your mind and your body. What you do with your body affects your mind and vice versa…so whoever you are, you can train your brain in the same way you train your body – to be fitter, stronger and healthier.”

Exercising your brain doesn’t have to involve blowing your wages on brain training software either, although there has been a lot of fuss made about computerised cognitive training in recent years. University of Newcastle researcher Dr Vincent Candrawinata recommends sticking to brain training that involves real-world activities and offers novelty and challenge.

“There are many apps, games and programs that claim to have a boosting effect on our brains, but research shows that they don’t work because they don’t provide the challenge, flexibility and fluidity of a situation needed to train our brains,” he says.

 

READ A GOOD BOOK

Research shows that reading a novel has the power to make positive long-term changes to the brain. A recent study from Emory University focussed on how the brain is reshaped over the course of reading a novel. Researchers asked 21 participants to come in for functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRIs) over 19 days. For the first five days, the researchers took baseline fMRIs. They then assigned the participants nine sections of Pompeii, a 2003 thriller by Robert Harris, to read over a nine-day period. They gave them further fMRIs after they had completed each section of the novel as well as additional scans after they had finished it.

The results showed heightened connectivity in the left temporal cortex, an area of the brain associated with language comprehension, as well as in the brain’s central sulcus, which is associated with sensations and movement. The neural changes were likened to ‘muscle memory’, suggesting that reading a novel not only stimulates the brain by forcing it to analyse words, sentence structure and storyline, it also stimulates our imaginations and improves societal awareness.

“Reading has always been regarded as the most effective way to train the brain because it triggers so many aspects and functions of it,” says Dr Candrawinata. “In my opinion, reading for brain is like swimming for muscles. It activates, trains and utilises the brain in its entirety.”

So read a book and you’ll not only enhance its performance but prevent premature ageing. Join a monthly book club in 2018 or make it a goal to read 12 books throughout the year – that’s only one per month. If you’re not a big reader, you can also try creating ‘word pictures’ to get similar brain-boosting effects. Visualise the spelling of a word in your head then try to think of any other words that begin or end with the same two letters. This is a great standing-in-line-at-the-supermarket exercise – no reading glasses required.

 

TAKE TIME TO REFLECT

Mindfulness is a bit of a marketing buzzword, but according to Dr Nejad, even the most haphazard engagement with mindfulness practices can help stimulate neuronal growth, particularly in the areas of the brain that are responsible for planning, decision-making and emotional regulation. Small amounts of meditation help strengthen the self-control regions of the brain, which is particularly useful for people recovering from addictions such as smoking. Regular meditation has also been found to increase that all-important ‘grey matter’, which is responsible for hearing, memory, impulse control, speech, emotions and many other executive functions, all of which tend to become less reliable with age.

“Relaxation exercises also have a positive impact on the structure of our brains,” says Dr Nejad. “Meditation is mainly about relaxation, calm and positive thoughts, so it can influence the neuroplasticity of the brain to change and adapt in psychologically advantageous ways.”

Find ‘emptying your mind’ difficult? Mindfulness is arguably more accessible than meditation but equally useful in terms of clearing your brain of unhelpful thoughts and beliefs, thus giving it more space to focus on positives instead. Dr Nejad suggests directing your brain to look at particular thoughts as helpful or unhelpful rather than negative or positive. She emphasises that your thoughts are not facts; you can adjust your thinking to cultivate optimism.

“Imagine yourself coping well with a situation – imagining is almost as powerful as doing it for real and will put you in better stead to help yourself,” she says.

 

START A CONVERSATION

It sounds too good to be true, but as it turns out, socialising is positively good for your state of mind. Having a conversation requires your brain to be highly engaged; it follows that mingling with strangers or having a good chat with a friend can, in the long run, actually boost your brain power.

“Social interactions, conversations, working out and even having a nice meal with friends and family actually work better than the numerous apps, games or programs that claim to have a boosting effect on our brains,” says Dr Candrawinata.

“If you want optimal cognitive abilities, then seek connection with other people through social activities and meaningful relationships. Talking to other people is not only a way to understand and process your thoughts, it elevates your ability to think clearly and can also lift your mood.”

In case you needed more help to justify lingering over brunch with friends, research also shows that social engagement is associated with a stronger immune system, better mental health and a lowered risk of dementia. People who connect with others generally perform better on tests of memory and other cognitive skills, and tend to live longer than those who are more socially isolated. For optimal brain health benefits, choose social activities that are both physically and cognitively engaging, such as exercising with a friend or singing in a choir.

 

FOR THE MEMORY BANK

It goes without saying that there are plenty more ways you can give your brain its own workout routine, including mind games such as sudoku and Scrabble, or learning a new language or musical instrument. Vigorous physical exercise has positive effects on brain function on multiple fronts – it increases heart rate, which pumps more oxygen to the brain; it helps the body release hormones, which create a nourishing environment for brain cell growth; and it stimulates brain plasticity by increasing the number of connections between cells. At least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity on most – if not all – days of the week is best. But don’t be deterred! A study from the Department of Exercise Science at the University of Georgia found that even briefly exercising for 20 minutes improves information processing and memory functions.

“Health supplements such as fish oil, activated phenolics and acetyl L-carnitine can also help boost brain activities and increase the efficiency of its functions,” says Dr Candrawinata.

“What you eat can improve cognitive function, but a little-known fact is that hydration levels and brain performance are directly linked. Dehydration can lead to mental fatigue, memory problems and sleeping problems – and when you consider that about 70 per cent of our brain is water, it’s not too difficult to grasp that hydration is essential for it to function properly.”

Dark chocolate also gives your brain a boost due to its production of dopamine, which helps you learn faster and remember better. So feel free to eat a few squares in the interest of brain power. Out of all the chocolate research out there, our favourite is a 2012 study released in the New England Journal of Medicine, which found that the higher a country’s chocolate consumption, the more Nobel laureates it spawns per capita. While it sounds like a stretch, you can rest assured that dark chocolate has multiple proven brain health benefits including improved learning, memory and focus, and protection against free radical damage.

To keep your brain sharp as a tack, make it a priority in 2018 to do things that are good for it as well as your body. Let it struggle with challenging tasks to flex and tone its neural connections, and exercise it like a muscle – even though it’s predominantly grey and white matter. You’ll reap the benefits in far more ways than one.