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Have you ever wondered what it takes to achieve mental fitness?

Better brain fitness is essential to how well we think, how we make decisions, solve problems and learn new skills. And we think a lot! We think about our future plans, what happened in the past and hopefully we’re spending time thinking about what we’re doing right now.

Thinking is a set of skills.

But brain fitness is not just having the smarts. You may have an IQ that guarantees you a spot in Mensa but what we’ve learned from the neuroscience is that intelligence is not innate, and our cognition comprises a number of domains served by different neural networks.

The single most important concept to have come out of all the brain science over the last few decades is the understanding that the human brain is plastic, capable of rewiring itself in response to changes in our environment. Neuroplasticity enables us to upskill and develop our cognitive capacity which is a fancy way of saying we can smarten ourselves up brain wise through our conscious choice of focus. It’s our cognitive advantage.

Plus. there is no one size fits all when it comes to brain fitness, just as physical fitness comes in all sorts of shapes and forms.

For example, what makes the difference between a person becoming a champion swimmer, runner or tennis player is aptitude and the type of training undertaken. Do they need speed, endurance, strength or a combination of all three?

It’s the same with our thinking skills. If you’re a surgeon or an accountant attention to detail might be a priority. For a graphic designer or artist, it might be being able to think outside the box to create new ideas.

We are all different and every brain is unique thanks to our neuroplasticity.

How well is your brain working?

Until fairly recently, it wasn’t possible to effectively evaluate cognitive function in detail. While doctors have had some fairly blunt instruments to test for evidence of cognitive decline or Alzheimer’s disease these were not that helpful in determining reduced capability in logic, reasoning or working memory. (These are still in use by the way, including the test undertaken by the US President to demonstrate he does not have dementia.)

Our new technologies have allowed us to peek into the activity of the living human brain and measure cognitive function. Now it’s possible to get a baseline impression of an individual’s cognitive function which can be used for future comparison with ageing or for follow up  following an injury or disease.

There are a number of cognitive assessment tools available that are proving immensely helpful in the workplace and medical setting.

Your cognition is not fixed.

Have you noticed how some days you’re the titan of smartness, alert, switched on and firing on all mental cylinders, and other days not so much?

That’s because how well we think is influenced by a number of things such as the food we eat, how much shut eye we’re getting, our level of stress and how physically active we are.

The research is clear, our cognition is impacted big time by our choice of lifestyle.

What do you need to choose to focus on to elevate your mental performance?

Fuel up right

Studies have shown our choice of food impacts our mood, memory and cognition. Rather than getting caught up in the hype of the latest food fad or diet, choosing to eat a wide variety of different foods that are real (fresh and unprocessed), mostly plant based (that doesn’t exclude meat btw) and not too much, is the best way to fuel up those neurons so they can function at their best.

We don’t have to make our nutrition super complicated. It’s time to ditch the guilt and learn to reconnect with our food in a positive and supportive way.

Sleep tight

Getting between 7-8 hours of good quality uninterrupted sleep has been shown to be best to optimise cognitive performance. The results of the world’s largest sleep study conducted by the BBC, Cambridge Brain Sciences and University of Western Ontario revealed that how getting less than this amount reduces reasoning and verbal ability.

Unless you have proof that you carry the short sleep gene meaning you can function normally on less sleep, it’s time to set a high value on your sleep, reject bedtime procrastination (you seriously don’t have towatch one more episode of your current Netflix series), and switch off from all technology at least 60-90 minutes before you going to bed.

And here’s a challenge for you. Choose to go to bed 20 minutes earlier than normal each night for three weeks and notice what impact that has on your daytime energy, concentration capability and mood!

You may be pleasantly surprised.

Stress less

Stress is normal. We need some stress in our lives to boost performance. But like many things as far as our Goldilocks brain is concerned it’s important that the balance is “just right,” not too much or too little. The modern world and workplace that is so fast paced and changing fast in many instances has burdened our brain with too much stress increasing our risk of mental distress, burnout or mental illness.

Here it’s important to recognise what level of stress you find the most motivating to help you be your best and know what your cut off point is. This is where practicing relaxation strategies regularly work well to enhance your stress resilience, adaptability and happiness.

These include developing a strong social network, practising meditation and doing those activities that give you pleasure such as listening or playing music, exercising or being creative in some way.

Move more

If there was one thing to recommend above everything else when it comes to enhancing brain fitness, it’s this. Physical activity is neuroprotective and vital to our overall executive function. We think better on our feet. We’re sharper, more alert, enjoy a faster speed of processing information and remember more.

The best exercise is always the exercise you do and while 20-30 minutes of aerobic exercise (the sort that makes you huff n’ puff) remains the gold standard, as far as your brain is concerned ALL physical activity counts. The new exercise prescription is to move more and sit less. You don’t have to be a top athlete to gain the cognitive benefits, walking the dog, dancing or mowing the lawn all count. It’s being consistent, creating a daily habit of exercise  that you just do, even when you don’t feel like it.

To stay at the top of your game and future-proof your mind is all about giving your brain the attention it deserves, optimising your brain’s health to boost mental performance.

That’s brain fitness at work.

Dr Jenny Brockis

Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and internationally board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, workplace health and wellbeing consultant, podcaster, keynote speaker and best-selling author. Her new book 'Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life' (Wiley) is available online and at all good bookstores.

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