Life

5 Healthy Habits to Keep Your Mind Sharp

Most of us know we need to make healthy choices if we want to keep our bodies in shape as we get older. We hit the gym, watch the scotch intake, and try to not judge vegetables for taking up a third of our plate at dinner. When it comes to preventative care, most men focus on maintaining muscle definition and a balanced diet. However, in a recent study from the National Institute of Aging, men showed steeper rates of cognitive decline compared to women in perceptuomotor speed and integration (movement of a limb in response to perception) and visuospatial ability (identifying visual and spatial relationships among objects). Mental decline is common and one of the most feared consequences of aging. But cognitive impairment is not inevitable. 

Brain functionality naturally decreases over time, but there are ways to slow the decline process. In the famous words of Aristotle, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.” Habits are present throughout our everyday lives. In fact, 40 percent of your actions are not conscious decisions but habits built through learning and repetition. Behavioral scientists who study habit formation say that many of us try to create healthy habits in the wrong way. We employ an all-or-nothing attitude by making bold resolutions without taking the steps needed to set ourselves up for success. Knowing how to properly integrate healthy brain habits into your lifestyle will help keep your mind sharp well into your golden years. 

Habits and Your Brain

Habits are the brain’s own internal productivity drivers. Due to its efficiency-driven nature, the brain is always looking to transform tasks and behaviors into habits so we can do them automatically. The part of the brain responsible for this operation is a golf ball-sized lump of tissue toward the center of the skull called basal ganglia. Basal ganglia work as a hard drive for the brain to encode habits once they are learned.

When a habit is created, the brain stops participating in decision making. So unless you deliberately fight a habit—unless you find new routines—the pattern will unfold automatically. This process is commonly referred to as the Habit Loop. Understanding how habits work is the first step to creating new healthy habits and working towards breaking the ones that impact your ability to live your best life. 

Habits of Mind

According to Arthur Costa and Bena Kallick, authors of the book Habits of Mind: A Developmental Series, there are 16 behaviors that breed thoughtful and intelligent actions. This comprehensive guide was first developed for teachers to impart these good habits onto their students, so they can successfully overcome challenges. In this case, the challenge would be creating a new habit.

16 behaviors to overcome challenges

  • Persisting
  • Thinking and communicating with clarity and precision
  • Managing impulsivity
  • Gathering data through all senses
  • Listening with understanding and empathy
  • Creating, imagining, innovating
  • Thinking flexibly
  • Responding with wonderment and awe
  • Thinking about thinking (metacognition)
  • Taking responsible risks
  • Striving for accuracy
  • Finding humor
  • Questioning and posing problems
  • Thinking interdependently
  • Applying past knowledge to new situations
  • Remaining open to continuous learning

Creating New Habits

Yes, some habits can be changed simply by finding a substitute. For instance, chewing nicotine gum if you want to quit smoking or eating a banana instead of a cookie every time you crave sugar after a coffee break. However, for more “advanced” habits, like changing your diet or starting a new workout routine, these processes start to get more complicated. 

Changing more advanced habits requires a lot of effort and willpower. Since most of us lack the necessary amount of willpower to form new habits, creating the right conditions for the habit to change gradually will help automate new behavior. 

On average, it takes 66 days to create a new habit. Performing the new behavior every day will help create consistency, which is crucial to making a habit stick. When it comes to habit-building tasks, the most challenging part is the take-off. Using author and productivity consultant David Allen’s 2-Minute Rule is a great place to start. The gist is that any habit can be boiled down to a 2-minute version; e.g. “regularly practice yoga” becomes “roll out your yoga mat,” or “read more books” becomes “read one page of a new book.” This method of “showing up” will force your brain from a passive state to an active state, which will weaken your internal resistance to change.

5 Habits for a Healthy Brain

If it isn’t clear by now, breaking a habit is no easy feat. But when it comes to building healthy habits, small decisions can make a lasting impact on your journey to preserve and protect your brain’s function over time. 

1. Fuel Your Body

A diet rich in Omega-3 fatty acids can fight inflammation associated with neurodegeneration. This means eating a lot of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, getting protein from fish and legumes, and choosing healthy unsaturated fats (olive oil) over saturated fats (butter). 

2. Keep Moving

Daily exercise has been shown to support the prevention of Alzheimer’s disease and related cognitive disorders. Getting 15 to 30 minutes of physical activity every day helps activate the brain to release molecules essential for repairing brain cells. 

3. Challenge Yourself

Stimulating the brain helps reinforce the connections between neurons to boost your memory, concentration, and focus. Experiment with different activities, such as reciting the grocery list to strengthen memory and recall, or assembling a puzzle to enhance motor skills. Try activities that combine mental, social, and physical challenges.

4. Get Enough Sleep

When your brain receives new information, it needs time to process it into something you can easily recall. If we don’t get enough sleep, we are unable to process the information we learned during the day, and we have more trouble remembering it in the future. Studies indicate that people who sleep less than seven hours a night may be at a higher risk for dementia. 

5. Reduce Stress

Stress activates the release of the hormone cortisol. In small amounts, cortisol enhances your brain’s use of glucose and increases the availability of substances to repair tissue. High cortisol levels can lead to excess plaque in blood vessels, decreased oxygen to the brain, and brain damage. Adopt relaxation methods, such as meditation or yoga, to develop positive ways to cope with stress. 

If you want to improve on something, you need to monitor your progress and the behaviors that cause progress. Just like the sense of accomplishment you feel when crossing off a task on your to-do list, small victories have a significant impact on self-motivation. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and your habits won’t change overnight. It takes time, consistency, and acknowledging your progress to form the habits that will keep your body and brain healthy for years to come. 

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