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How to Challenge, Exercise, and Feed Your Brain

Imani Sankofa
Just like the rest of your body, your brain needs to be well-cared for in order to function at its highest level. For example, your memory will be sharper if you practice a daily regimen that includes a challenging cognitive workout. Your body and your brain will both benefit from a varied exercise routine. And, if you incorporate good nutritional habits, this also helps the brain to flourish.

Here are some tips on how to challenge, exercise and feed your brain.

Exercises for Good Brain Health
When most people think of exercise, they envision working out to keep their bodies physically fit and healthy. But the brain – so important to living a full life -- also needs an exercise regimen to stay agile and alert.

What can you do to challenge your brain? Activities like crossword puzzles, card games, reading, volunteering and Sudoku puzzles will stimulate thought and cause you to retain information and problem-solve. Even planning a vacation or attending a class will require the brain to process new information.

More challenging activities might include mastering a foreign language, learning a new computer program or taking music lessons.

Numerous computer programs and books feature “brain games” that will give you a systematic mental workout. Customizing these games optimizes the effectiveness. The key is to have differing levels of intensity and difficulty to keep the mind engaged and working.

There are also simple exercises that don’t require a book, computer or even pen and paper. Try this: While waiting in line at the bank, count to 100 by factors of three. If that’s too easy, then go backward. Run through the multiplication and division tables in your head. Another easy brain stretch is to use your non-dominant hand while doing daily tasks. You might find this frustrating at first, but you will be amazed at the results.

Whatever activities you choose, make sure that you have to work your brain, causing it to be used in non-routine ways. This stretching process will help create stronger memories that will provide for clearer overall thinking.

Physical Exercise Benefits the Body and the Brain
Scientists used to believe that people were stuck with the brain they were born with – and that individuals naturally began to lose cognitive function as they aged. This thinking allowed people to accept memory loss as inevitable and believe that nothing could be done about it.

However, new research shows that the brain constantly renews itself, giving hope to those with cognitive decline.

Recent research also reveals that frequent physical exercise has a direct correlation to brain function. Exercise stimulates stem cells to grow new brain cells in the memory part of the brain. Enhancing blood flow to the brain increases the density and size of the brain’s capillaries, which in turn increases the amount of oxygen to the brain.

The evidence is clear: Your body can get flabby from lack of movement and so can your brain.

Studies show that a vigorous exercise program -- one that gets the heart pumping fast -- causes more blood flow to the brain, thereby providing the most benefits. However, any exercise is good, so take a walk, work in your garden, lift weights and generally just get moving. The more you do the better.

Adding complexity to the exercise program, such as learning new dance steps, also helps the brain since it combines both physical and mental stimulation. So, you can help fine-tune your mental sharpness by varying your physical activities and by trying something new.

Finally, it’s never too late to begin exercising. If you have trouble committing to a consistent workout program, then partner up with a spouse, family member or friend. You will be more apt to stick with a program if there is another person counting on you.

Brain Foods for Better Health
Weight management and good nutrition are both essential to good health. In fact, new medical evidence indicates that a poor diet contributes to brain cell damage – so what you feed your body directly affects your brain.

A “brain healthy” diet means low-fat, low cholesterol choices combined with an abundance of antioxidant foods. What’s good for you and what should you avoid?

Eat fresh foods, rather than highly processed foods. Drink plenty of fluids (six 8 oz. glasses a day) and make sure that a good portion is water. Limit any caffeine and alcohol.

Include colorful fruits and vegetables in your diet and strive for at least 4-5 servings daily. Choose foods such as kale, spinach, Brussels sprouts, alfalfa sprouts, broccoli, beets, red bell pepper, onion, corn, eggplant and dark green lettuces. Fruits with high antioxidant levels include prunes, raisins, blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, raspberries, plums, oranges, red grapes and cherries.

In moderation, nuts – like almonds, pecans and walnuts -- can be a good source of vitamin E, an antioxidant.

Lycopene increases the blood antioxidant capacity, so foods like tomatoes, tomato products and V8 juice are all good choices.

Most people do not consume enough protein. Opt for proteins found in cold-water fish, like tuna, wild salmon, herring, trout, sardines and whitefish. Conversely reduce saturated fats – such as red meats and animal products, and replace these “bad fats” with the monounsaturated fats in olive, canola, sunflower, safflower and soybean oils.

Decrease the intake of trans-fats (also called Trans fatty acids or hydrogenated vegetable oils) which are found in many processed foods.

Avoid high glycemic or simple carbohydrate foods that are really just empty calories. Sodas, sweetened drinks, cakes, cookies and other sugary snacks will give you an initial energy boast, but they will cause your blood sugar to fall dramatically which places stress on the body.

The goal is to have a healthier body and mind. Your brain will benefit from a well-balanced diet and improved food choices. When in doubt, choose fresh options, read the labels and consult with your physician or a nutritionist.

Author's Bio
Dr. Lorne S. Label is director of the Brain Longevity Center in Thousand Oaks. The Brain Longevity Center offers proactive programs for those with mild-to-moderate dementia and others seeking to maintain a healthy brain as they age. For information call 805-497-7274 or visit us online at brainlc.com.

Imani Sankofa / Author & Editor

As a result of working with Imani, women learn to reduce stress, release weight, and reconnect to life. Imani is looking to work with women who are interested in peace of mind, improved health, and creating a life they love.

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