January is the unofficial month of dieting and gym memberships. It is the time when we step on scales, step up our workouts, and promise to make healthier choices in the upcoming year. But most of us overlook an important part of getting healthy—our cognitive health.
A healthy brain works at full capacity, allowing us to do tasks such as pay attention, make decisions, and remember our experiences. But, like our bodies, if we don’t keep our brains in shape, they don’t work quite so well. This is particularly true for leaders, whose cognitive health is often compromised in order to meet deadlines or squeeze in business trips. Common signs of poor cognitive health include exhaustion, stress, anxiety, irritability, indecisiveness, inability to focus, and trouble remembering things. While it is easy to think of these symptoms as merely the side effects of a successful career, poor cognitive health is detrimental to leading effectively, and can result in serious physical health conditions and career derailment.
The good news is, there is something you can do about it. The latest neuroscience research suggests that our brains are much more malleable than we once thought. Our neural connections are constantly changing, growing, and adapting. This means that, like our biceps, we can strengthen our brains by giving them the time and attention that they need. Here are 4 ‘workouts’ that you can do every day to help ensure that your brain is buff and brilliant in the New Year—and it won’t even cost you a gym membership.
Actively processing new information is one of the best ways to work out your brain. When you acquire new knowledge, you are building new neural pathways. This is particularly important because as we age, we lose some of our brain cells and neural connections. Research has shown that people who practice active learning are less likely to have cognitive impairments such as Alzheimer’s disease later in life.
The key here is to learn actively. Passive learning (e.g. zoning out in a meeting or reading without processing what we’ve just read) does not add new information into our long term memories and does not boost our cognitive capacity.
To practice active learning: mindfully focus on what you are trying to learn (rather than multitasking), ask questions, test your memory and recall, and regularly practice newly acquired skills. Look for new learning opportunities. At work, attend workshops, classes, or conferences; outside of work, consider taking up a new hobby such as learning a musical instrument, a new language, or a new sport.
Our brains need oxygen to survive—mere minutes without it and our brain cells start dying. Given that oxygen is the food that keeps our brains going, breathing well is important for our cognitive health. Certain types of breathing patterns are better for you than others.
Try practicing healthy breathing for 5-10 minutes every day: Breathe in slowing through your nose (8-10 seconds), and then breathe out through your nose even more slowly (10-15 seconds). Focus your mind and energy on your breathing.
Research shows that this type of mindful breathing calms our nervous systems, lowers stress and anxiety levels, and helps us focus. This is because evolutionarily, when we face danger and fear, we automatically breathe quicker (think of hyperventilating), so by slowing our breath—and in particular our exhalations—we are giving our brains feedback that we are safe, and can relax and use our cognitive energy to focus on other things.
Neuro-connections can disintegrate over time if your brain isn’t challenged. One way to flex your brainpower is through problem solving. As a leader, you are probably well-versed in problem solving in the workplace. But if you want to beef up your problem solving prowess, try solving puzzles and brain teasers. Such exercises have been shown to increase brain efficiency—meaning that the brain doesn’t have to work as hard to complete tasks. One study showed that people who played Tetris for 30 minutes a day had thicker cerebral cortexes after 3 months of practice (the cerebral cortex is the outer layer of neural tissue in the brain which is involved in memory, attention and awareness).
There are many different types of puzzles and brainteasers out there—from Sudoku to crosswords, Rubik cubes to word searches. Board games, card games or video games can also be effective, as long as they involve strategy and problem solving. Once you master one type of puzzle, try switching to a new one, and gain the added bonus of active learning.
The CDC has called our collective lack of sleep a “public health epidemic.” The average adult should get about 7-9 hours of sleep per night, but 30% of us get less than six hours. If you are a leader, you are probably one of them. Intense workloads often make leaders feel like they can’t afford to sleep. But staying awake might be doing us more harm than good. Research shows that lost sleep reduces our brainpower and cognitive functioning—decreasing concentration, memory and thought processing, while increasing stress and anxiety. In fact, recent studies have shown that people who were sleep-deprived showed equal or worse cognitive impairments as people over the legal limit for alcohol intoxication! You wouldn’t show up to work intoxicated, so why show up sleep deprived?
To practice better sleep habits, try to get 7-9 hours of sleep a night or at least go to bed 30 minutes earlier. If you can’t improve your sleep at night, try adding some other ways to approximate the benefits of a full night sleep, such as taking a 20 minute nap, engaging in yoga, or meditating.
Eating right and exercising regularly also have positive impacts on your cognitive health—including more brain density, improved memory, and increased ability to cope with stress. So sticking to those traditional New Year’s resolutions is not a bad idea either.
What will you do to get cognitively healthy this year?