Foods & Exercises To Improve Brain Function & Mental Fitness

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If your brain is a fitness model, the key idea is to keep challenging it with new tasks, sleeping and eating better, and exercising and meditating regularly. Click To Tweet

A perpetually fatigued brain frustrates to no end. It is as if your brain refuses to get out of the bed when you want it to race out of the door.

You may, however, train it to stay sharp, lucid, and energetic by using some of these expert-recommended tactics. With time, practice, and persistence, anyone can radically improve their mental fitness levels.

Before we dive in, here is the crux: remember, these work only when you practice them consistently. But why, you may ask? 

Recall your most recent celebration dinner, if that was Thanksgiving or New Year’s Eve. You promised yourself you wouldn’t eat for the next two days. But you were starving by the next afternoon.

So, treat these exercises as brain-food, and do them regularly to convert them into an unconscious habit.

How To Improve Brain Function And Mental Fitness

7 Healthy Habits To Improve Brain Function And Mental Fitness

1. Keep A Log Book of Pleasant Memories

Everything is new and exciting when you’re young. Your supple brain quickly records every “first.” However, as we get older, our lives fill up with so many memories that it gets hard to retrieve a fond memory from the brain’s crowded “hard disk.”

For those days in your later life, when life pulls you down, and you want to call up a nice memory to relive the joy, why not create a beautiful book of pleasant memories now?

It could be as simple as a word document on your computer or as elaborate as a physical, handwritten, hand-drawn notebook. Keep it updated routinely and record any event that’s a thrill.

Get into the habit of noticing new things in your day. When something interesting and pleasing happens, log it. Keep a note of your moments of savoring.

Savoring is a Positive Psychology technique for increasing the intensity, duration, and enjoyment of pleasant experiences and emotions. It is a purposeful activity that boosts happiness. You can do this by extending certain parts of your day and week.

Holding a loved one for a few seconds longer, not hurrying through dinner, sipping a glass of water slowly, deeply inhaling the morning fresh air when stepping out, or pausing to experience the coziness of your bed-linen on a chilly night, are some of such experiences.

Studies show a positive correlation between improved health and recalling pleasant memories. It helps develop more positive emotions and shifts our mindset toward that of a glass-half-full person.

Many mental health issues of later life are linked with negative childhood experiences, such as poor mental health of parents, poverty, bullying, neglect, and abuse. In young people who have faced adversity, mental illness often appears earlier and is more severe.

A recent study found recalling positive memories can help reduce the risk of depression in children who had a difficult childhood. Those in the study who recalled more specific positive memories (such as a happy 13th birthday) had fewer negative thoughts about themselves.

Researchers have found reminiscing about happy events can boost positive feelings and prevent the release of stress hormones after a stressful event.

Remember to place your memory book where you can have quick access to it.

2. Eat These Foods For Brain Health And Fitness

According to studies, the best foods for brain health and cognitive function seem to be the same foods that protect your heart and blood vessels.

Mediterranean Diet

The Mediterranean diet appears to have the most evidence for promoting brain health and lowering the chance of developing memory issues. It is a style of eating that is based on the traditional cuisines of Greece, Italy, and other countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea.

The Mediterranean diet focuses on plant-based foods such as grains, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and herbs. The main source of added fat is olive oil, which is high in monounsaturated fat. Fatty fish, such as mackerel, herring, sardines, tuna, and salmon, also find a place in the diet.

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10 “Brain Foods”

1. Seafood and fatty fish — cod, salmon, sardines, tuna, halibut, and mackerel contain omega-3 fatty acids which help prevent brain strokes.

2. Green leafy vegetables — antioxidants and lutein, folate, β-carotene, and phylloquinone, which slow down cognitive decline)

3. Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, Cabbage, Cauliflower, Kale — contain glucosinolates which minimize oxidative stress and the risk of neurodegenerative disorders.

4. Dark chocolate and coffee — contain cacao, which has flavonoids.

5. Oranges and tangerines — contain vitamin C.

6. Cinnamon, flaxseeds, ginger, turmeric — contain antioxidants.

7. Eggs — contain choline, vitamins B, D, and E.

8. Vitamin E supplements — according to a study published in Neurobiology of Aging, those with greater levels of vitamin E were up to 15% less likely to suffer from cognitive impairment.)

9. Vitamin D — one study found people with low vitamin D levels showed a worse mental decline over 4.4 years compared to their counterparts with adequate levels of vitamin D.)

10. Nuts — the nuts contain monounsaturated fats which lower total cholesterol and low-density lipoprotein (or “bad”) cholesterol levels in the blood.

Why nuts are beneficial for brain fitness?

Researchers found eating peanuts and tree nuts twice a week, and walnuts once a week, was linked to a 13% to 19% lower risk of total cardiovascular disease and a 15% to 23% lower risk of coronary heart disease. According to one study, regular consumption of nuts may be associated with a reduced risk of cognitive decline in older adults.

▪ A 2019 study discovered people aged 55 and over who ate more than 10g of nuts per day had a higher cognition score or were 40% less likely to have a poor cognitive function.

▪ A 2014 study of older women aged 70 and up discovered a higher total nut intake over the long term was linked to better overall cognition.

▪ We can explain the beneficial effects of nuts on brain health by a variety of nutrients, including healthy fats, antioxidants, and vitamin E. Vitamin E protects cells from free radical damage, which helps to slow cognitive decline.

This study suggests almonds, hazelnuts, and walnuts contain macronutrients, micronutrients, and phytochemicals that may stop the start and progress of Alzheimer’s disease, including amyloidogenesis, tau phosphorylation, and oxidative stress. Hazelnut may even reverse brain atrophy.

This study indicates eating 1–2 oz of walnuts per day can improve cognitive performance and also lower the risk of other conditions such as cardiovascular disease, depression, and type 2 diabetes, all of which are risk factors for dementia development.

3. Exercise Regularly

All exercise is good for your brain. Some exercises that are especially useful for keeping it in great shape are the ones that maintain your eye-hand coordination (EHC). These are racquet sports like tennis and badminton, swimming, tai-chi, video games, juggling, and ball-bouncing.

Regular exercise improves our brain health. It reduces inflammation, increases blood flow, and stimulates the growth of new brain cells and new blood vessels. It indirectly improves mood and sleep by reducing stress and anxiety.

Exercise can enhance the structure and function of our brain, improving memory and thinking ability. Researchers from the University of British Columbia say regular aerobic exercise seems to increase the size of the hippocampus, the part of the brain that controls verbal memory and learning.

Exercise is a promising strategy to combat cognitive decline.

Researchers from the University of South Australia and MSH Medical School Hamburg in Germany found 150 minutes/week of sports activity, as WHO recommends, can reduce the risk of developing depression and anxiety.

Another study found exercise can work just as well as medicine to prevent mild-to-moderate depression. As Tal Ben-Shahar, author of Happier and Even Happier, says, “In essence, not exercising is like taking a depressant.”

Exercise lifts our mood almost immediately by releasing endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin. Regular workout also enhances our psychological well-being over time.

  • Group exercise keeps you engaged and is energizing.
  • Individual exercise is more contemplative and stress-reducing.

Researchers agree on exercising at least 30 minutes a day for at least 5 days a week for optimal brain/body performance.

However, there is a catch: Don’t overdo it. People doing vigorous-intensity physical activity often had higher levels of depression, anxiety, irritability, and sleep disturbances. An easier method of exercising yourself to increased immunity, better brain health, and enhanced happiness is “forest bathing.”

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Read the fascinating science behind exercise and happiness.

3. Practice Mindfulness Meditation

Meditation is way too difficult. We all know it.

Two major problems with meditation are feeling sleepy and mind-wandering. They indicate two things: one, your brain is tired, and two, meditation demands energy and practice.

  1. Sleepiness while meditating, or during any other activity, means you are sleep-deprived. Solve that first by getting enough sleep, which is 8 hours every day.
  2. Mind-wandering means either your mind finds it too laborious to stick to the path or it is not trained to do so. You can solve this with mindfulness practice.

Mindfulness is paying full attention to an act without judging any aspect of it. It is being wholly concentrated on one thing and temporarily entering a state of heightened awareness.

You can be mindful while walking, eating, or watching the sunrise. With enough practice, you can move up to mindfulness meditation.

Mindfulness meditation has been around for centuries in many religions and cultures. Records tell us that Buddhist monks have been mindfully meditating for thousands of years. Recently, scientists have started to study it and understand its benefits.

Mindfulness meditation is the process of focusing on the present moment and accepting the rising thoughts and emotions without judgment.

Meditation helps you improve your task focus, attain clarity in thoughts, build mental resilience, and get a tranquil mind. Don’t forget to note that these benefits last long term, throughout the day and the week.

Regular meditation can transform the way your brain works, making it a fitter and more effective organ.

The idea is this — begin with 5 minutes of mindfulness meditation a day and gradually increase it by 1 minute every week till 30-60 minutes/day.

The mind is a gym, and meditation is a basic workout. — Daniel Goleman

4. Play Brain Games

Brain games are neuropsychological tasks transformed into games or puzzles that challenge our core cognitive skills, like memory, logic, attention, processing speed, flexibility, and problem-solving.


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One of the simplest brain games is to play a fun memory game, like moving your eyes across the room, then closing your eyes, and trying to recall the colors of each object in sequence. You could play this on your own or with a friend or partner.

Chess, crosswords, picture puzzles, and sudoku are some highly effective brain fitness games.

An often ignored but quite simple trick is to read a random article on Wikipedia.

There also exists a universe of brain training games on your smartphone. A few of the most downloaded ones are Peak, Lumosity, Elevate, Brainwell, and NeuroNation.

According to a study published in PLOS, brain-training games can improve young people’s “executive functioning, working memory, and processing speed.”

Meanwhile, a 10-year study revealed cognitive training can help the elderly increase their speed of processing and lower their risk of dementia.

However, a 2018 study by Stojanoski and Lyons found hours of brain training in one game did not improve performance in a second game.

Developed and backed by teams of neuroscience researchers, many of these games work to condition your brain in getting fitter. Most of these apps track the user’s progress, show achievement insights, and create a custom-tailored regimen for players on different schedules.

We suggest playing a game that challenges your brain, if only for 10 to 15 minutes, out of an entire day’s 1440 minutes.

6. Make Sleep A Priority

A good night’s sleep is essential for our mental health and overall well-being. Research estimates a $1,967 loss in productivity per worker because of impaired sleep.

Poor sleep impairs cognitive functions. When it comes to sleeping well, both quality and quantity are equal priorities.

  • Quantity of sleep: If you want your brain to perform with maximum vigor and focus during the day, you must get a full 8-hour sleep each night. Sleep experts also urge us to take afternoon naps to recharge our brain’s batteries.
  • Quality of sleep: Poor quality sleep, like interrupted sleep or dreamless sleep, can make you feel exhausted in the morning.
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Poor sleep can also be a side effect of medications, sleep apnea (a blocked airway causing periodic stoppage of breathing), or an overactive bladder interrupting sleep for trips to the bathroom.

Sleeping well through the night allows you to stay sharp and respond fast during the day. It helps regulate your memory, mood, learning, appetite, and libido. Sleep performs the two most vital functions:

While sleeping, the brain tries to make sense of the events of the day and put them into a meaningful context. Our brain cells rewire themselves during deep sleep, creating a meaningful map of the day’s information. So, when you get a good night’s sleep, it is easier to recall what happened during the day.

Sleep clears out a lot of toxins accumulated during the waking hours. Sleep deprivation has been linked to Alzheimer’s disease. According to this research, sleep helps in the removal of beta-amyloid deposits from the brain.

Sleep also helps build immunity. Studies have shown sleep-deprived people are more likely to get a cold virus.

Remember, sleep is perhaps the most vital part of your mental health. Cutting back on your sleep only increases your waking hours, which are neither your most productive nor your best creative hours.

So, organize your priorities so that you can sleep for 8 to 9 hours, and get optimum rest. Here are the Six Genuine Sleep Hacks From Science.

7. Do Digital Detox Periodically

In present times, we stay glued to our digital screens most of our waking hours. From our laptops and desktops to tablets and phones. Digital detox is simply cutting down on your screen time.

One effective way seems to be the hardest. It involves living a few days off the grid. You go on holiday to a place with none of your digital devices. Usually, you go where you will not find any internet signals.

An easier way is to make yourself digitally unavailable for a few hours, such as before your bedtime. During these, you could read a paper book, write in a paper notebook, meditate, play a board game, paint or sketch, or create something. In fact, you could make your bedroom a no-blue-screen zone.

Another still easier way is to switch off or silence your phone during your conversations. Research shows that even if we are not using our phones, having them within easy reach during a conversation can lower the quality of the interaction. It happens even when you are not looking at your phone,—but your mind is waiting for notifications and, as a result, you are not fully present.

You could do the same while having your meals. Here are 20 Practical Tips To Eat Mindfully.

Final Words

Explore the environment outside your regular residence. When you travel to new places, you challenge your brain with new tasks and often open yourself up to AWE, The Eleventh Emotion.

Let us close this with the story of an interesting experiment:

▪ In 2015, a group of scientists, led by Professor Paul K. Piff, took ninety students into a grove of 200+ feet tall Tasmanian Eucalyptus trees.

▪ They made an odd request to the students. One group was to watch a tall building nearby, and another was to stare at the towering trees. Each for a full 1 minute.

▪ Then, as a student walked across, an experimenter appeared and “accidentally” dropped a bunch of pens. Piff and his team wanted to find out which of the students helped pick up the pens.

▪ They found those who stopped and helped pick up the pens were mostly those who had spent time watching the giant trees. But why?

▪ Watching the tall trees filled the participants with a sense of awe. And this made them more generous and helpful.

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The Little-Known Power of AWE!

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Author Bio: Written and reviewed by Sandip Roy—a medical doctor, psychology writer, and happiness researcher. Founder and Chief Editor of The Happiness Blog. Writes popular science articles on happiness, positive psychology, and related topics.


• We are Happiness Project.


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