Write these down. Hiroshi Watanabe/Getty Images Looking for actionable ways to stay sharp, maximize your natural brain power, improve mental health, and prevent cognitive decline? Of course you are. The good habits and healthy mindsets we adopt right now really can help protect and maintain our brain health in the long term. But what exactly are the key habits and lifestyle factors that keep the brain “young” and thriving for as long as possible? The answer isn’t as simple as downloading another brain game app ( the science is pretty fuzzy on whether they actually do anything). Instead, cognitive neuroscientist Julie Fratantoni, PhD, head of research and strategic partnerships at Center for BrainHealth , shares the best, science-backed strategies to hack your brain health—and put the brain power you already have to even better use.
Related: 6 Everyday Habits to Train Your Brain to Be Happier Create High-Level Goals—and Set Mini-Goals Along the Way
Setting and working toward a valued goal supports both your sense of well-being and important brain systems. “Having clearly defined goals can strengthen your sense of purpose,” Fratantoni says.
According to Fratantoni, goal-setting is a fantastic exercise for the brain’s frontal network, the region involved in high-level executive functions, reasoning and decision-making, information retrieval, and emotion regulation (just to name a few). “When you engage in setting goals, planning, and prioritization, you’re exercising your frontal network,” she says. “Your frontal lobe is the first part of the brain that’s vulnerable to decline over time, so anything you can do to strengthen it is good.”
Plus, as you take incremental strides toward a larger resolution and accomplish small steps along the way, “you’re activating the brain’s reward network to produce dopamine (which is both motivating and rewarding),” Fratantoni says.
Do focused work toward your goal every day.
Do something that propels you toward the main goal every day for a realistic chunk of time. Fratantoni calls this your “elephant.” “The elephant is not the goal, [but it’s] something you can work on for 45 minutes of focused work that moves you forward,” she says.
Leverage your personal, prime-time mental energy.
Take stock of when you have the most energy and brain power—and then use it to get real stuff done. “This is about being strategic with your mental energy,” Fratantoni explains. “Many people feel sharpest in the morning [and] use that time to answer emails and do other busywork. Instead, block that time to work on a task that will move a major project forward. Save emails and busywork for when you have less energy.”
Related: How to Make Good Habits Stick—Go Beyond New Year’s Resolutions Build Confidence Through Patterns of Positive Self-Talk
It’s time to break free from self-deprecating thought patterns, which trap us in loops of anxiety that limit our cognitive capabilities. Building confidence and generating a positive self-perception (skills that can be learned with practice!) doesn’t just create a more pleasant headspace—it can help change the way your brain works and set you up for better problem-solving, resilience, and innovation.
“When you’re feeling anxious, the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) narrows your options to fight/flight/freeze, so you are able to act quickly [for survival],” Fratantoni says. “On the other hand, confidence quiets the anxious systems, which allows you to think creatively and solve problems.”
Actively replace pessimistic thoughts with confidence-boosting thoughts.
Instead of fighting to stop negative self-talk (which can seem to have a mind of its own), work on replacing it with confidence-building, self-affirming thoughts . “Telling yourself simple phrases such as ‘I can do this,’ and ‘this can happen,’ help to cultivate a confident mindset,” she says.
Keep some deep breathing exercises in your back pocket.
When your negative thoughts or self-doubt go haywire, Fratantoni recommends practicing a simple slow breathing exercise (inhale for four counts, exhale for six counts) to get your system out of anxiety mode and “bring your rational brain back online.”
More easy breathing exercises to try: Box Breathing
Mindful Breathing Series
Related: Want to Be More Positive? Here Are 7 Things Optimistic People Do Differently Get Your Heart Rate Up Routinely
It really can’t be overstated how beneficial exercise is for brain health and mood management —not just your heart, bones, joints, and muscles. Prioritize getting a daily dose of heart-pumping movement to increase blood flow to the brain and boost cognition .
“Moving your body and raising your heart rate improves thinking, learning, problem-solving and emotional balance,” Fratantoni says. “Physical exercise sparks the birth of new neurons in the hippocampus, which is the part of the brain that is responsible for memory and learning . [It also] increases brain derived neurotropic factor (BDNF) , which sparks the birth of new neurons.”
Find ways to move that don’t intimidate you—and that you’re likely to return to consistently.
Just a small increase in physical activity (even if you’re starting at zero!) is all it takes to see some benefits. So, think small. Walking is a fantastic form of exercise , especially if you can pick up the pace a little bit, or walk on an incline , to the point where you’re breathing a bit heavier and raising your heart rate. Even vigorous gardening or household chores , the kind of tasks that make you want to strip down to just a T-shirt—like vacuuming or cleaning out the garage—all count.
“Small changes can make a big impact,” Fratantoni says. “Taking the stairs, going on a 10-15 minute walk every day , and even playing with your kids are all small but important ways to keep you active throughout the day that don’t require spending hours in the gym.” Boost Your Memory: Challenge Yourself to Think Even Deeper Memory decline is a normal part of getting older, but it doesn’t always need to happen so soon or so rapidly. Wondering how to “workout” your memory “muscles” for better information retention and recall? Challenge yourself to expand upon the info you’ve taken in.”After you engage with information (like a podcast, article, or […]