Integrated Brain Fitness for May

Friday, May 6, 2016

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

Distracted Walking

Most of us don’t text, surf the web, or otherwise use our phones while driving, thanks to traffic laws and common sense. But many of us still do it while walking, at least occasionally. And that makes our brains compete for resources. It’s hard for our brains to maintain focus on everything it needs to safely navigate and complete a task on our phones at the same time. In one study, people who were texting while walking took longer to cross the street and were four times as likely to do unsafe things (not looking where they were going, ignoring traffic lights, and going beyond the crosswalk).1

For those of us who are used to constantly using our phones, it can be hard to ignore them while we walk. Here are a few ideas for setting your phone aside and avoiding the compulsion to take a look:

  • Idea 1: Find out why walking and using your cellphone is a bad idea. According to the National Safety Council, more than 11,000 people in the U.S. alone were injured from walking while using their cellphones between 2000 and 2011. And unlike with distracted driving, most of those (52%) actually occurred at home. (Plus, many, many people report embarrassing themselves by walking straight into a parked truck, lamp post, closed door, stranger, and more…).
  • Idea 2: Give yourself a few minutes to check your phone (while standing still). Then walk—either for a certain amount of time (say, 15 minutes), or to your goal (the kitchen). If you absolutely must use it again, stop walking.
  • Idea 3: Stop and smell the roses (figuratively). Take the opportunity while walking to really look at what’s around you. Try to notice things you’ve never seen before. Paying close attention can make your walk more enjoyable—and distract you from looking at your phone.

Probably a Bad Idea

We can’t in good conscience recommend them, but there are apps that are designed specifically so you can walk and text at the same time. Basically, they use the phone’s camera to let you see through your phone while you text.

Missing the Clown

Imagine you’re walking and there’s a clown riding a unicycle. Would you notice? In one study, 71% of people walking with friends remembered the clown, but only 25% of people talking on their phones did.2

1Thompson LL, Rivara FP et al. Impact of social and technological distraction on pedestrian crossing behavior: an observational study. Injury Prevention. 2013 Aug;19(4):232-7.
2Hyman Jr IE, Boss SM et al. Did you see the unicycling clown? Inattentional blindness while walking and talking on a cell phone. Applied Cognitive Psychology. 2010 July;24(5):597-607.

Bacteria or Bust

While some bacteria can cause illness, our bodies are full of “good” bacteria that benefit us, too. About five pounds of it, according to some estimates. Recently, scientists have discovered that your gut bacteria can communicate with your brain along the “gut-brain axis,” and that changing the body’s bacterial balance can alter brain activity, especially as it relates to mood—sometimes for the better.

The details aren’t clear yet. Which bacteria are best, and for what outcomes? There’s much more research to be done, but the first hints are here. For example, one study on women found that taking a fermented milk product with five specific bacteria changed the activity in brain regions that control emotion and sensation.1 Other studies have shown that changing gut bacteria has the potential to reduce anxiety and sadness.2

Since the best food source of good bacteria is live-culture yogurt, we’ve included some great recipes that include yogurt here. Try a few this month!

The best brand of yogurt

Yogurt comes in many forms, and it can be hard to know which to choose. The best choice is making your own! There are many recipes, such as this one from Epicurious. (The easiest way to get your yogurt starter is to order it online from somewhere like Cultures for Health.) If you don’t want to make your own yogurt, though, just be sure to look for ones that contain active cultures—and stay away from those that are too sugary, which can be more harmful to your brain than helpful.

What about supplements?

You can also get bacteria in probiotic supplements. Since scientists aren’t sure which bacteria are the best for your brain, if you choose to take probiotics it may make the most sense to choose one with several different strains of bacteria.

Weird quote of the day:

“We are, at least from the standpoint of DNA, more microbial than human.”

- Tom Insel, the director of the National Institute of Mental Health, as quoted in the New York Times when commenting on the fact that there are more unique bacterial genes in a human body than human genes.

1Tillish K, Lagus J et al. Consumption of Fermented Milk Product with Probiotic Modulates Brain Activity. Gastroenterology. 2013 June;144(7).
2See, for example, Bravo JA, Forsythe P et al. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 2011 Sep 20;108(38):160500-5; Steenbergen L, Sellaro R et al. A randomized controlled trial to test the effect of multispecies probiotics on cognitive reactivity to sad mood. Brain Behav Immun. 2015 Aug;48:258-64.

Resistance Is Not Futile

Although a lot of the research on physical exercise and cognitive function focuses on aerobic activity, there’s now some evidence that resistance training can be good for the brain, too. So this month, try to get some resistance training in (if you haven’t already). Below are a few ideas to get started:

  • Idea 1: Short on time or access to equipment? You can use your own body weight in resistance training. Push-ups, plank, lunges, leg lifts, wall slides, and so on are all forms of resistance training. (See a list of 50 of them here.) Many of these types of exercises are easy to do at home, on vacation, and elsewhere. Pick a few and do them at home two to three times a week. One note: Form can be quite important for getting the best workout and staying safe. If possible, have an experienced person guide you the first few times you do these exercises.
  • Idea 2: Lifting weights is a classic form of resistance training. If you have a gym membership or weights at home, push yourself this month to increase your reps or add more weight to your exercises. Don’t have weights? Try using things around your home, like the ones suggested here.

Keep in mind that you should always check with your doctor before starting any new exercise regimen.

Who you are and what you do might matter

The benefits of resistance training may vary depending on how often you do it and what sex you are, among other factors. For instance, one study showed that older men who did resistance training three times a week for six months improved in memory and verbal concept formation.1 A different study—this one on women—showed that even once-a-week resistance training over the course of a year significantly improved selective attention and conflict resolution2 (both “executive function” skills that help you get things done). 

1Cassilhas RC, Viana VA et al. The impact of resistance exercise on the cognitive function of the elderly. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2007;39(8):1401-1407.
2Liu-Ambrose T, Nagamatsu LS et al. Resistance Training and Executive Functions. Archives of Internal Medicine. 2010;170(2):170-178.

Feel Some Gratitude

 “When I started counting my blessings,” Willie Nelson once said, “my whole life turned around.”1

Science hasn’t weighed in on whether gratitude can turn your whole life around, but there are increasingly clear benefits to feeling grateful. These benefits include a reduction in stress and depression levels.2 Lowering stress and depression is good for your mental, cognitive, and physical health.

Gratitude takes two forms: you can feel grateful to a person who has done you a good turn, or by noticing and appreciating the positive in the world around you. While some people are more inclined toward gratitude, there are ways almost anyone can increase their gratitude. This month, try doing these things to see if you can build your gratitude to reduce stress and give your brain a break!

  • Idea 1: Many of the studies done on the benefits of gratitude ask people to keep a “gratitude list”—a list of what you’re grateful for that you add to regularly. Start keeping a list yourself in whatever form is easiest for you. For example, you might get a notebook and write down three things you are grateful for each night before bed; keep a log on your computer or phone; or jot them on a post-it and stick it to your fridge. After a month of keeping the lists, ask yourself if you’ve noticed any changes in how you feel.
  • Idea 2: Do you or your family members ever complain about your day to each other? When you notice that happening, try playing a game of “roses and thorns.” For each “thorn” (annoying thing) about your day that you talk about, make sure to name two “roses” (things you are grateful for).
  • Idea 3: Express your gratitude to someone in your life who has done something to support you. Whether that person helped you move, got you a thoughtful gift, or just helped you through a tough issue, write them a sincere letter of thanks.

Did you know…

Some psychologists think gratitude may be much more important than generally perceived in their field. As one study argued, “gratitude is a key underappreciated trait in clinical psychology, of relevance due to a strong, unique, and causal relationship with well-being, and due to the potential to use simple and easy techniques to increase gratitude.”3

1Nelson, W and Pipkin T. The Tao of Willie: A Guide to the Happiness in Your Heart. Avery. 2006. xii. 2Wood AM et al. The role of gratitude in the development of social support, stress, and depression: Two longitudinal studies. Journal of Research In Personality. 2008. 42:854-871. 3Wood AM, Froh JJ ad Geraghty AWA. Gratitude and well-being: A review and theoretical integration. Clinical Psychology Review. 20100. 30:891.

Train from Your Progress Charts

One great way to choose what to do next on BrainHQ is by using your own progress charts. Doing so allows you to focus in on levels that you’d like to improve. Here’s what you do:

  1. When you’re logged in, click the PROGRESS tab at the top of the screen.
  2. Then choose STARS EARNED, LEVELS COMPLETE, or your percentile.
  3. Each of those sections has a graphic. In STARS EARNED and LEVELS COMPLETE, you see a map of every exercise level in BrainHQ. The ones that are marked are ones you’ve done. Read the text to see what the variations mean. You can hover over any part of the maps to see how you performed in it. In the stars map, you can see how many stars you earned in each level. In the levels complete map, you can see how often you completed a level. To find a similar map in your percentile, click the PERFORMANCE DETAILS tab above the circle. Then you’ll see a map that shows you your percentile for each level.
  4. Click any box on any map to go directly to that level and train again—either for the first time or to improve your performance!