Body Building for Your Brain

Each week my kickboxing teacher starts the class by warning the new students that they may feel awkward. However, they will be getting the most benefit from attending class, more so than the experienced members.

She explains that muscles need to be challenged with new and different movements all the time. If they get used to specific movements, growth diminishes. You need to constantly be changing your workouts to reap the best benefits. Feeling awkward is a good sign that growth will follow.

Isn’t this a great metaphor for life? We need new challenges to grow, and we need to learn how to delight in our awkwardness, whether it involves intimate conversations or learning how tap dance.

THE TRUTH: We have to train our brains the same way as the muscles in our legs. The brain needs new challenges on a regular basis to increase mental capacity. It also needs to be taken care of just as we care for our body to ensure peak performance.

BRAIN TIPS: Here’s how to better flex a strong and healthy brain.

  1. Avoid chronic stress. Although stressing a muscle to the max will help it to grow, muscles break down if chronically stressed. The same is true for the brain. Dr. Sonia Lupien, Director of the Laboratory of Stress Research in Montreal, says that brains chronically assaulted by stress eventually show memory loss. Chronic stress comes more from everyday worries than from traumatic events. She believes that although yoga and meditation may help with focus and physical performance, the only way to reduce chronic stress is to learn how to identify the source of negative feelings, then let go of what is not in your control and act on what is. People can deplete cortisol levels and enhance their brain functions by better managing their worries. A coach educated in emotional intelligence can help you become aware of your emotional states and how to shift them at will.
  2. Balance your work-rest ratio. Body builders don’t work their muscles every day. Muscles need time to heal if they are to grow stronger. The same is true for the brain. If it is constantly working, the result will be frustration, anxiety and loss of concentration. What’s worse, when we feel a little tired, we fuel our bodies with coffee and a muffin. Running on adrenalin only decreases mental capacity. Instead, you should take regular mental breaks. Walk the halls, go outside for a breath of fresh air, or call a friend or loved one. Many studies show that people can work fewer hours and get more done. A renewed and fresh brain works more efficiently. Besides, when you are doing something “mindless,” the brain has a chance to activate more pathways. That is why your best ideas come while taking a shower. And while you are on your break, eat more protein and drink some water instead of sweets and caffeine.
  3. Choose fun activities. According to research at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, the best activities to keep the brain at its peak involve other people. Social activities reduce the body’s level of stress hormones and mastering new skills boosts brainpower. Taking ballroom dancing lessons or martial arts classes add more brain cell connections than doing crossword puzzles. And keeping track of more than one bingo card with a group of friends is better than reading alone. The best activities combine mental, social and physical elements.
  4. Change emotional channels. A trainer once instructed me to switch to gratitude every time I was tempted to give into the pain of an exercise. If I was grateful for my legs working and my heart pumping, I could accomplish more than focusing on what hurt. The same is true in life. When we get frustrated, angry or disappointed, if we shift our emotions to gratitude, laughing at ourselves, or creating a challenge to master, the task is easier and solutions are more apparent. Even if you have to fake the emotion at first, your brain will benefit. Acting can produce the same physical effects as real emotions do for a while. And before you face a challenging situation, try to visualize how you want to feel and behave. Then breathe and make the vision real. In other words, if you want to increase your productivity and creativity, go out and have more fun. Learn to do the things you avoided because you thought you would look silly. Appreciate the roses you can smell and send your worries on vacation. You will be smarter in many ways.

If you would like to reproduce this tip, please credit Marcia Reynolds as the author.
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