Integrated Brain Fitness for April

Monday, April 4, 2016

Give yourself a gold star for each of these brain-healthy activities you do this month.

Leave Your Comfort Zone

According to Dr. Michael Merzenich, professor emeritus at the University of California at San Francisco and co-founder of Posit Science, one of the worst things you can do for your brain is get stuck on auto-pilot. Conversely, one of the best things you can do is to challenge your brain with new experiences and learning. “The best kinds of new activities, “ he says, “are those that demand that you pay attention to the details of what you see or hear or feel or smell and at the same time involve grander and more complex planning or performance challenges as you progress.”

Here are some ideas from Dr. Merzenich to get out of your comfort zone and add a new activity to your life this month!

  • Choose what new thing you want to do. It can be something ambitious—learning a new dance, instrument, language, or sport, for example. Those types of activities are great because they require close attention, engage multiple senses, and can continue to challenge your brain for a long time.

    But you can also start with something smaller that still requires your brain to work in new ways. Maybe you can challenge yourself to take new routes to familiar places (no GPS!), learn to write, eat, and do other things with your non-dominant hand, or investigate a new topic and really challenge yourself to pay attention and remember as much as you can. 

    Whatever you choose should be something that’s likely to be satisfying and rewarding. Not only are you more likely to continue—positive good feelings also encourage your brain to pump brain chemicals associated with learning and memory.

  • Once you’ve chosen a new activity, figure out how to get started. Take a class, set a schedule, do it with a friend—whatever works best for you.
  • While working on your new activity, it’s important that you work at a challenging level for you. It shouldn’t be so hard that you feel you’ll never make progress, nor so easy that it comes with no effort. Make some mistakes; they are part of learning. Your brain is more likely to change when you face and eventually overcome a challenge, however small each challenge might be. So once you make one forward step, keep going and challenge yourself to make another!

Learn more

If you’re interested, Dr. Merzenich has written a book filled with information and advice about the brain over the course of life, and how to keep it functioning at its best. It’s called Soft-Wired: How the New Science of Brain Plasticity Can Change Your Life.

Bean There

Beans—including kidney beans, black beans, pinto beans, garbanzo beans, broad beans, and more—are on the list of the 10 most brain-healthy foods, as identified by Dr. Martha Clare Morris in the MIND diet. That diet has been shown to slow cognitive aging1 and reduce risk of Alzheimer’s by as much as 53%2. The recommendation: Eat half a cup of beans every other day or so. Here are a few recipes to get you started this month.

  • Spicy Lime Black Beans
    This is a wonderfully delicious and fragrant way to enjoy brain-healthy black beans. You can serve them with tortillas and sour cream or as a side dish for any meal.
  • Cannellini and Tomato Panade
    A panade is a dish that’s thickened with bread. It’s a great way to use leftover bread, and makes for a hearty, rustic meal. In this recipe, both cannellini beans and tomatoes add a brain boosting element.
  • Napa Farmhouse 1885 Beans & Greens Filled with pinto beans and kale, this dish is good for the brain and heart—and delicious, too.
  • Spinach and Split Pea Dhal
    Split peas and other legumes are rich in folic acid, which has been shown to improve verbal and memory performance. The spinach and garlic in this recipe likely have brain benefits, too.

Why are beans good for the brain?

Beans are a rich source of B vitamins and folic acid, both of which have been associated with brain health. Beans may also help supply glucose, the fuel the brain depends on to function.

1Morris MC, Tangney CC, et al. MIND diet slows cognitive decline with aging. Alzheimer’s & Dementia. 2015 Sep; 11(9): 1015-1022.
2Morris MC, Tangney CC, et al. MIND diet associated with reduced incidence of Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimer’s & Dementia. 2015 Feb; 11(9): 1007-1014.

Take the Stairs

Yet another reason to take the stairs: it may be good for brain health. A recent study of people aged 19 to 79 found that on average, those who walked up more flights of stairs had “younger” brains (as measured by volume of grey matter in the brain). In fact, for every daily flight of stairs climbed, “brain age” was an average of 0.58 years younger.1

If you need a few ideas to add some staircase steps to your day, try these.

  • Are there times in your life where you avoid the stairs and opt for an elevator, escalator, or ramp instead? Make it a habit to add one or more flights of stairs whenever you have the opportunity.
  • Depending on where you live, there can be many opportunities for outdoor stair climbing—on a steep street or city hill, at a local field or stadium, or at a local beach or park, for instance. See if there are some appealing outdoor stairs near you and take your next walk there.
  • Don’t have a lot of stairs around you? Most gyms have a stair climber you can use. Or just use what you have in or near your home. Step on and off a curb, stool, porch, or other steady item instead of climbing a real flight of stairs. See how many times you can do it…then aim for more the next time.

One caveat

This study doesn’t actually say that the stair climbing caused the younger brain age—just that it was correlated with it. Still, it probably won’t hurt your brain to take the stairs more often!

1Steffener J, Habeck C et al. Differences between chronological and brain age are related to education and self-reported physical activity. Neurobiology of Aging. 2016.

Start a Sleep Diary

Do you ever wonder what affects your sleep and what quality of sleep you’re getting? It’s an important question, because many studies suggest that getting too little sleep may impair cognitive function. Keeping a sleep diary for a month may help you get helpful insight into your own sleeping situation. Here’s what to do:

  • Find a good-quality sleep diary template, like the one from the National Sleep Foundation or the National Institutes of Health. There are also some apps you can use—just make sure it’s asking for the same type of tracking as the templates from reputable sources.
  • For a week (or two), take a few minutes each morning and evening to put information in your sleep diary. Keeping the diary and a pen next to your bed may help you remember.
  • After a week or so, review your sleep diary. Do you notice any patterns that seem to make your sleep better or worse? If so, make a change and keep going with your sleep diary. Hopefully, after some experimentation, you’ll have a better sense of what helps your sleep—and what hinders it—so you can make step-by-step improvements in the overall quality of your sleep!

Treat Yourself

We all have favorite BrainHQ exercises—and those we don’t like quite so much. When you’re working in the personalized trainer or on a challenge, however, the exercises are assigned to you. 

But as you may know, you can train in any BrainHQ exercise at any time. Just scroll to the bottom of the page, and click the link for the exercise of your choosing. Today, treat yourself by spending your time in the exercise you think is most fun! Get back to BrainHQ to get started.

If you’d like to learn more about that exercise (or any other), you can find pages dedicated to each one on our site.