How To Exercise Your Brain For Better Focus + Productivity
Many of us spend a good amount of time thinking about our physical fitness. Whether it’s as simple as trying to get our daily steps in or as goal-oriented as training for a half marathon with our friends or partner, physical fitness is on our minds.
But what about our mental fitness?
Sometimes in our quest for a healthy, vibrant body, we can forget that our minds are a critical piece of the puzzle of our health. Our brain is an incredibly complex organ and is responsible for movements, mood, and thoughts. Without our brains, we wouldn’t be able to function on any level and when it isn’t working optimally, it shows.
So, if we hit the gym to work out our quads and biceps, why can’t we also work out our brains as well? Well, we can — and we should! Here are five ways to do exactly that.
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Fasting might seem like an exercise for your body but really, your brain reaps a good portion of the benefits. For example, a study published in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences suggests that continuous consumption of food causes changes in epigenetic molecular DNA and protein that negatively impact cognition. (1) That sounds pretty scary, but luckily, allowing your body to fast for at least 14 hours overnight is one of the best ways to reverse this cycle and exercise your brain’s repair mechanisms. In my newest book Intuitive Fasting, I dive into all the ways fasting can enhance cognitive function coupled with a 4-week plan designed to guide you through varying intermittent fasting windows.
2. Learn an instrument
Now we’re really getting into the “exercise” part of the equation. Learning something new has been shown to strengthen the connections in your brain and improve overall memory function. (2) And the benefits don’t stop there, either! Learning something like an instrument or a new language can engage different areas of your brain that can help you solve problems better and be more emotionally intelligent.
3. Go outside
It might not seem like a walk in nature is much of an exercise for your brain, but the truth is that sunlight provides you with vitamin D, which is important for ending off brain fog and memory issues. (3) Research has also shown that spending time in nature can lead to cognitive benefits and improvements in mood and emotional well-being.
4. Try low-carb
There’s no greater distraction for your body than blood sugar levels that are constantly spiking and crashing. Luckily, a clean, plat-centric ketogenic diet — also known as a Ketotarian Diet — is a great way to support blood sugar levels and give your brain the space it needs to work at optimal capacity. When you’re in ketosis, your body and brain run out of blood sugar to burn for fuel and they must call upon ketone bodies like beta-hydroxybutyrate (BHB) for fuel. Ketone bodies can induce the expressions of proteins such as brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which is known for supporting the survival of existing brain cells and encouraging the growth of new ones. (4) Better blood sugar levels and a healthier brain? That’s a win-win.
I saved the best for last! If there’s an ultimate exercise for your brain, it’s meditation. Why? Well, meditation can increase the thickness of the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which can slow down cognitive decline and encourage neuroplasticity, which is your brain’s ability to regenerate itself by making new connections. Studies have also shown that meditation can increase gray matter in the brain (5) in areas that are responsible for mood stabilization and create more activity in areas of the brain responsible for memory and focus. (6) Click here for a full list of meditations science-backed benefits.
At my telehealth functional medicine clinic, I’m seeing more people every year that are struggling with poor memory, brain fog, or hindered productivity — especially after the stressful year we’ve had! By doing at least one of these five exercises every day, you can help strengthen your brain and promote better brain health for life.
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- Mattson MP. An Evolutionary Perspective on Why Food Overconsumption Impairs Cognition. Trends Cogn Sci. 2019 Mar;23(3):200-212. doi: 10.1016/j.tics.2019.01.003. Epub 2019 Jan 19. PMID: 30670325; PMCID: PMC6412136.
- Noice H, Noice T, Staines G. A short-term intervention to enhance cognitive and affective functioning in older adults. Journal of Aging and Health. 2004;16:562–585. [PubMed] [Google Scholar]
- Wilkins CH, Sheline YI, Roe CM, Birge SJ, Morris JC. Vitamin D deficiency is associated with low mood and worse cognitive performance in older adults. Am J Geriatr Psychiatry. 2006 Dec;14(12):1032-40. doi: 10.1097/01.JGP.0000240986.74642.7c. PMID: 17138809.
- Mattson MP, Moehl K, Ghena N, Schmaedick M, Cheng A. Intermittent metabolic switching, neuroplasticity and brain health [published correction appears in Nat Rev Neurosci. 2020 Aug;21(8):445]. Nat Rev Neurosci. 2018;19(2):63-80. doi:10.1038/nrn.2017.156
- Leung MK, Chan CC, Yin J, Lee CF, So KF, Lee TM. Increased gray matter volume in the right angular and posterior parahippocampal gyri in loving-kindness meditators. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2013;8(1):34-39. doi:10.1093/scan/nss076
- Baron Short E, Kose S, Mu Q, et al. Regional brain activation during meditation shows time and practice effects: an exploratory FMRI study. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2010;7(1):121-127. doi:10.1093/ecam/nem163
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BY DR. WILL COLE
Dr. Will Cole, IFMCP, DNM, DC, leading functional medicine expert, consults people around the world via webcam and locally in Pittsburgh. He received his doctorate from Southern California University of Health Sciences and post doctorate education and training in functional medicine and clinical nutrition. He specializes in clinically researching underlying factors of chronic disease and customizing a functional medicine approach for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders, and brain problems. Dr. Cole was named one of the top 50 functional medicine and integrative doctors in the nation and is the best selling author of Ketotarian and The Inflammation Spectrum.