Fitness Habits that Benefit Your Body and Brain

by Maggie Greenwood-Robinson, Ph.D. on Tuesday, September 10, 2002

If you could see yourself at 65, would you see someone as mentally sharp as you are today? You can be, if you take care of your brain. Living a healthier lifestyle today can boost your brainpower and fend off mental decline well into your golden years.

Here are 10 ways to protect your mind for the rest of your life:

Eat well

More than any organ in your body, your brain relies on a minute-to-minute supply of nutrients for peak functioning. The right food can have an enormous impact on your mental capabilities, alertness, problem-solving ability, memory, mood, and reaction times.

To supply your brain with the nutrients and energy it needs for optimal functioning, eat a healthful diet; that means avoiding highly processed food. A brain-restorative diet is one that includes at least five servings of fruits and vegetables daily, several servings of whole grains, moderate amounts of lean proteins (fish, poultry, lean red meat, dairy products) and, yes, some fat.

Dish up more fish

Fish is loaded with super-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, vital for optimum brain health. Scientific evidence reveals that omega-3s combat depression, improve intellectual performance, rebuild the fatty membranes of brain cells, and protect against stroke. The current optimum health recommendation includes two to three fish-based meals per week.

Supplement with antioxidants

Your brain consumes more oxygen than any other organ in your body. Thus, it's highly vulnerable to oxidation, a tissue-damaging process that occurs when oxygen reacts with fat. The by-products of this reaction are devilish molecules called free radicals that attack bodily tissues and damage your mental faculties over time.

Fortunately, oxidation and the free radicals it produces can be neutralized by antioxidants, which are available from food and supplements and are found naturally in the body. Antioxidant powerhouses are vitamin C, vitamin E, and beta carotene; chief mineral antioxidants are selenium, copper, zinc, and manganese.

The best way to increase your supply of antioxidants is to eat plenty of fruits and vegetables every day. But for extra insurance, supplement with a daily multivitamin-mineral antioxidant tablet.

Water your mind

To maintain peak mental capacity, drink eight to 10 glasses of water daily. Even when you're only mildly dehydrated, your mental performance suffers. Water your mind regularly to keep it well-lubed and running smoothly.

Avoid brain-draining drugs

These bad boys include alcohol, antihistamines, blood-pressure medications, and some anti-depressants - all of which tend to cloud thinking and impair memory. While some medical conditions necessitate drug usage, your doctor can help you limit the brain-altering effects of such medications.

Get regular exercise

What's good for your body is good for your brain, and that includes regular exercise, which boosts the flow of oxygenated blood to your brain. With more oxygen traveling up, you think more clearly.

In a study comparing those who exercise regularly to couch potatoes, the exercisers were more decisive and better able to size up a situation. In addition, exercise boosts reaction time and enhances the synthesis of neurotransmitters, which are required for the rapid transmission of messages throughout the body. Significantly, some degenerative brain diseases are caused or accompanied by a short supply of neurotransmitters in specific areas of the nervous system. Thus, exercise could have a protective or therapeutic effect on these conditions.

Use it or lose it

Your brain cells communicate with each other through fiber-like branches called dendrites. When brain cells are stimulated, dendrites grow, increasing the number of connections between cells. This improves your memory, attention span, and ability to learn.

One of the best ways to build new connections is to use your brain. Some suggestions: Learn a language, solve crossword puzzles, memorize Bible verses, learn to play a musical instrument, or become a tutor. Numerous studies also show people who regularly challenge their body and brain are less likely to lose cognitive function later in life - and may even reduce their chances of getting Alzheimer's disease.

Get smarter

Research has found that having an intellectually challenging occupation and continually expanding your education helps you stay mentally sharp as you get older.

Lose the stress

When you're persistently stressed or depressed, your adrenal glands churn out stress hormones. If stress is chronic, these hormones stay elevated, inflicting damage to the brain by destroying cells in the hippocampus, the seahorse-shaped structure deep within the brain that helps you learn and remember.

To get stress under control: Learn how to relax, pursue recreational activities, exercise, simplify your life, or undergo counseling to re-program your reaction to stress-provoking events.

Sleep on it

A sleepless night damages memory and learning ability, and scientists believe memory loss attributed to old age may be related to poor and prolonged sleep patterns. In addition to standard good-sleep advice, such as maintaining a regular sleep schedule, keep your room well-ventilated, eliminate sleep-robbing substances (e.g. caffeine and alcohol), sleep on a supportive and comfortable mattress and exercise regularly - but not within two hours of bedtime.

Maggie Greenwood-Robinson is a popular health and wellness author living in Dallas, Texas. She has written dozens of books and consults with top television shows on the subjects of women's health and fitness.

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