“Do your best.” We’ve heard that advice since pre-K, but how often do we really perform at our own personal best? Probably not that often if we’re in the groove of work and family life. And if we’ve been in that groove long enough, neuroscience tells us that the bar for our “best” has probably been lowered.
But thanks to the (newly discovered) plasticity of our brains, we can raise that bar higher than ever—and consistently reach it. How? By pushing ourselves physically and mentally.
New science shows us the absolutely groundbreaking, life-changing power of exercise to rebuild, strengthen and fortify our muscles and brains. With sharpened focus, memory, creativity and motivation, who knows what we could do? So let’s start the rewarding work here. The gold stars will be worth it!
We know the stereotypes: the pumped-up jock who’s as dumb as the 80-pound rock he lifts with ease and the scrawny, bespectacled nerd who doesn’t even need the calculator in his pocket. But the notion that brains and brawn are mutually exclusive areas of mastery couldn’t be further from fact. We’ve heard how the brain can influence the body (through the power of positive thinking or, conversely, the ability of mental stress to make us physically weak), but the reverse relationship might be even stronger.
Neuroscientists have found that exercise activates the growth of new brain cells as well as production of a crucial protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor, which John Ratey, M.D., author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, calls “the queen of brain growth factors.” The BDNF protein helps form new connections between brain cells and protects neurons from degeneration. It improves mood, anxiety, depression and overall brain health, including memory, performance, creativity and motivation, he says.
Ratey is particularly excited about recent evidence out of Sweden that found a direct correlation between fitness levels and IQ. The epidemiological study followed data from more than 1 million males for 40 years, from the ages of roughly 15 to 55. The boys’ physical fitness and IQ were measured at age 15 and then again at age 18. Those who increased their fitness also performed better on intelligence tests. The boys who saw a loss in physical fitness also saw lower IQ scores. Throughout their lives, the fitness/IQ relationship held true. “Brain function was determined by fitness,” Ratey says.
In another groundbreaking study, 2,235 men in the United Kingdom were tracked for 35 years. Those who consistently adhered to four out of five healthy behaviors or standards reduced their risk of dementia by 60 percent. “If there were a pill that boasted those kinds of results, it would be the best-selling drug ever,” says Norman Doidge, M.D., author of The Brain That Changes Itself.
And the “magic” behaviors that made this reduction possible? Good old-fashioned healthy diet and exercise. More specifically: exercise (defined as walking two or more miles a day, cycling 10 or more miles a day or another vigorous exercise described as a regular habit); a healthy diet (with three or more portions of fruit and/or vegetables a day and less than 30 percent of calories from fat); not smoking; alcohol consumption of no more than three units a day (a “unit” measured as 8 grams of pure alcohol, equivalent to about a third of a pint of beer, depending on its alcohol content, or half of a standard glass of red wine); and keeping within the healthy body-mass index range of 18 to just under 25. Of all the factors, exercise had the strongest protective effect against cognitive decline.
The brain benefits of exercise can be immediate. In one Stanford University study, students were asked to sit and complete a short series of creativity tests (coming up with alternate uses for a common household object, such as a button or spoon, for example). Then the students took a set of tests while walking at a comfortable pace on a treadmill. They performed markedly better on the creativity challenges, generating 60 percent more new and practical uses for an object.
In another variation, the students took a short walk outside and then answered the creativity questions while seated. Although not as sharp as they were while on the treadmill, the study authors noted that participants “exhibited a residual creative boost” from the walk, performing better than they had on the pre-exercise sitting test.
“It’s an eye-popping study,” Ratey says “and just one of many that shows that exercise is one of the key ways to optimize the way our brains accept and process information.”
So what kind of exercise is best? Whatever kind we’ll stick to. Ratey suggests working up a sweat with an intense exercise for at least 30 minutes two times a week, while staying active every day with walking, stair-climbing, dancing or whatever we enjoy. To get the most brain bang for our exercise buck, Ratey recommends doing a longer workout in the morning and then taking several three- to five-minute movement breaks throughout the day. These might include jumping jacks and squats, walking a few blocks or climbing the stairs to the office. “Instead of a coffee break, take a brain break. You’ll perform better the rest of the day.”
Have we made it clear just how critical exercise is for optimal cognitive function? Allow us to hammer home the point a bit further, particularly when it comes to walking. Doidge’s latest book, The Brain’s Way of Healing, tells the case history of a man with Parkinson’s disease who quite literally walked off his Parkinsonian symptoms, including its characteristic stooped posture, shuffling gait and shaky hands. By walking briskly several miles every other day, consciously focusing on his individual movements (because the Parkinson’s had stripped his brain of its automatic process when it came to walking), he was able to create new neural pathways, reversing the most debilitating of his symptoms.
“If there’s a panacea in medicine, it’s walking,” Doidge writes. If walking can diminish a devastating neurological disorder, how could it help us with our everyday brain scratchers? We saw how walking made the Stanford students more creative, and other walking studies show similar results with memory and fact-retrieval.
But what is it about walking that bestows such a substantial brain boost? It could be simply that walking is the exercise that most people can do consistently, and consistency is key. But Doidge shares a more far-reaching theory: “When does an animal go on a very long walk? When it has to leave its environment to find new food or flee a predator. As it heads to new areas, it learns along the way, stimulating baby stem cells and secreting brain growth factors that help turn short-term memories into long-term memories.”
In other words, the walks were intense learning experiences (learning where predators hide or which plants are poisonous or where to find water). Brains and bodies evolved together. “Our brains evolved after bodies developed in order to serve bodies, not the other way around, so they’re very connected.”
Doidge recommends walking fast enough to break a sweat, and doing so outside where we’re exposed to changing landscapes and obstacles as often as possible.
(That crossword puzzle probably isn’t cutting it.)
Lab mice that find their way out of mazes best—and then remember the way on subsequent tries—are those that were exposed to an “enriched environment.” For a mouse, that means being around other mice, and having a rodent wheel to jog on, a space large enough to roam around a bit, and climbing structures and tiny toys that provide a “cognitive challenge,” Doidge says. When scientists compare the brains of these “enriched” mice to those that were raised in impoverished environments (no friends, no cognitive challenges, no outlets for exercise), they find that the first group has more neuronal connections and chemical transmitters. Their brains are more developed, allowing for smarter, speedier maze-running.
For humans, an enriched environment is similar, albeit on a bigger scale: frequent and strong social connections, opportunities for exercise, cognitive challenges and a varied and changing environment.
But what constitutes a cognitive challenge, exactly? Think of working out the brain as being like working out the body; we want to break a sweat. But by the time most of us hit middle age, breaking a brain sweat is tough. We’ve probably been doing a variation of the same activities—working similar jobs, reading similar books, enjoying the same leisure activities—for years. So while we might think that our weekends of theater-going, novel-reading and Sudoku-solving have been intellectually stimulating… well, the bad news is that they haven’t been stimulating enough.
“Most people are not taxing their brains the amount they were in secondary school when they were learning a new language, for example,” Doidge says. “Reading a novel may change your life, and I consider it a leisure activity of the highest level, but it’s not challenging enough to rebuild your brain.” Ditto for crossword puzzles, reading the newspaper or practicing a martial art, even if we do them regularly. And the brain is a use-it-or-lose-it organ. To really use it, we should try new activities such as:
• Learning a new language. • Learning to play an instrument. • Going back to school. • Any new hobby that involves a steep learning curve, such as sailing, calligraphy, coding, surfing or woodworking. • Well-studied brain-exercise programs such as BrainHQ, which is “designed to keep you working at a higher and higher level,” Doidge says.
Challenging our brains in any way will improve memory in the short and long term. But there are also some in-the-moment ways to remember more and have it ready when we need it, says William Klemm, Ph.D., professor of neuroscience at Texas A&M University and author of Memory Power 101 and Improve Your Memory for a Healthy Brain. Whether we’re studying for an exam, trying to pin down the names of all our new co-workers or simply keeping track of our to-do items, these tricks can help.
• Build a “memory palace.” Memory athletes (folks who compete in memory tournaments, memorizing the order of cards in a shuffled deck within seconds) use an imaging technique called “method of location” (MoL), and it’s the best way for non-“athletes” to boost their memories, as well, Klemm says. Basically, it involves attaching visual images to the things we want to remember because images are harder to forget than words. For ease in remembering multiple items at once, all these visual images can be grouped together in one scene or location. If we envision the living rooms of our homes, for example, or of mansions in our minds as well as all of the objects inside, the TV, sofa, armchair, bookcase and vase can all become pegs on which to hang memories. We then imagine walking through the room to recall the associations. The mail slot in the front door is a reminder to mail our children’s camp health forms. The table in the foyer reminds us to make a copy of our keys for relatives, and the bookcase reminds us to return our library books.
• Take a break after learning something new. The most recent neuroscience research shows that memory is maximized through “spaced learning patterns.” That means spacing out study/learning sessions with break periods in between. The ideal formula, according to researchers: three short study sessions with 10-minute breaks after the first and second. But the most crucial part of this equation, Klemm says, is the rest time. The period immediately after learning or practicing new material is when the brain processes the information and cements it into long-term memory. If we are distracted by, say, texting our spouses or answering emails after reviewing our company’s financials, those memories may not jell as well. Instead, we should take time after a brain challenge to chill out, do something mindless (empty the dishwasher?) or go for a walk.
• Pair up memory and movement. Being active while trying to remember facts can help them stick better. Examples include tossing a football with a friend while reviewing aloud the talking points for a presentation or pacing back and forth while we quiz ourselves on the information for the certified public accountant exam.
• Get a good night’s sleep. We should do this every night, but especially after we’ve learned new material and before we’ll need to recall said material. “Sleep promotes consolidation of recent learning,” Klemm says.
Forget beauty sleep; we need brain sleep. While every other organ in the body is connected to the lymphatic system—which flushes out metabolic waste, cell debris, accumulated proteins and bacteria—our brains are not. So how do our noggins freshen up after a long, hard day of problem-solving?
While examining the brains of mice during sleep, scientists from the University of Rochester Medical Center found that channels between their neurons expanded up to 60 percent compared to when they were awake, allowing for an influx of cerebrospinal fluid throughout the brain, clearing out “neurotoxic waste” at a much faster rate than in awake mice. In short, CSF scrubs our brains clean every night.
People have always known sleep was restorative, but now scientists have a clearer idea why. In fact, it was long believed that sleep deprivation was a symptom of Alzheimer’s disease, but it’s now being considered as a contributing cause. So the next time we’re tempted to stay up late watching giggling-baby videos on Facebook, we should remember the cleansing bath our brains undergo every night when we get a full night’s sleep.
Positive thinking and imaging can be immensely helpful in gaining confidence in a certain area. But when it comes to accomplishing a goal, positive thinking alone can actually be detrimental, says Gabriele Oettingen, a professor of psychology at New York University and the author of Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation.
“When we do positive visualization, it’s like a fantasy that makes us feel warm and fuzzy inside,” Oettingen says. “We don’t have to accomplish what we were fantasizing about because we already have the good feelings.”
Oettingen doesn’t oppose positive imaging, but she feels it’s just the first step in really engaging with and attaining our goals. After we’ve imagined winning that award, crossing that marathon finish line or starting that new business, it’s time to let reality in. “Just as we imagined how great it will be to get accolades and praise, we should imagine the difficulties we’ll face,” Oettingen suggests.
She doesn’t want to discourage us, really. She wants us to develop realistic plans so we can overcome those obstacles instead of being blind-sided when we eventually hit them. She developed and tested—over 20 years—a strategy for effectively using positive thinking to jump-start a very practical plan of action. In the scientific literature, it’s called Mental Contrasting with Implementation Intentions, but Oettingen calls it WOOP, an acronym for Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan.
• Wish involves coming up with a clear goal and imagining doing what it takes to accomplish it. For example, if we’ve always dreamed of writing a novel, we should go ahead and fantasize about writing in coffee shops, sending out the manuscript to eager agents and signing a three-figure book deal.
• Outcome pertains to imagining what it would feel like once the goal is accomplished. Would we be able to pay off our student loans? Quit our day jobs? Will Oprah want to interview us?
• Obstacle relates to the main difficulties that might prevent us from achieving our goals. Not enough time? Struggles with procrastination? Fear of failure?
• Plan involves creating “if/then” solutions for each of our obstacles. If we don’t have time, then we will cut back on gym and TV hours. If we feel like we’re about to start procrastinating, then we will commit to penning just five sentences first. If we feel like our writing stinks, then we will sign up for writers’ workshops.
Contrasting fantasy with reality can also help us figure out whether the goal we’ve been dreaming about is really worth it, Oettingen explains. We might decide you don’t want to give up your gym and TV time and that you don’t want to invest in a writing class. Then you can let go of the goal without guilt (but feel free to continue to fantasize about it!).
(Oettingen offers a free WOOP app on iTunes to help us WOOP our daily and long-term goals.)
Observation is an overlooked and underestimated skill. But being observant can help us notice conflicts between people before they erupt, or spot inconsistencies in budgets, weaknesses in negotiation opponents and typos in important documents. So it’s worthwhile to sharpen our scrutiny.
For doctors, being observant can mean the difference between life and death. That’s why Harvard Medical students head to art galleries for one of their classes. In one study there, med students were trained in art observation and spent time checking out sculptures, paintings and photography at local galleries.
Compared with students who did not have the art training, they were able to make significantly more observations of importance on patient medical photos. Studying art makes doctors better. Can it make you a better manager, lawyer, designer, investor, editor or business owner?
This article appears in the June 2015 issue ofSUCCESS magazine.