Healthy Habits (Part 3) for the Mind

The Fresh Perspective Podcast - Episode 32

How’s it going everyone? I’m Nick and you are listening to the Fresh Perspective Podcast.

This episode is the third part of the series I like to call: “50 Habits For Maximizing Personal Health and Wellbeing.” In this series, we get to the bottom of what the experts actually recommend for the average person to be well, free from the noise of trendy health gurus, alternative medicine peddlers, and your eccentric uncle.

Today, we are shifting focus from the body to the mind. Stay tuned as we consider 5 habits for a healthy mind – simple choices you can make to improve your cognition, brain function, memory, and overall mental health.

This program is brought to you by the contributing members of the Free Thought Initiative.

We help those in need of an inclusive, supportive, and free-thinking community by hosting public discussions on moral philosophy, healthy living, and science, to improve the cohesion, health, and scientific literacy of our society.

Everyone is welcome, (regardless of personal background, religious belief, political leanings, etc.) to participate (in-person) in these open and civil discussions each week.

To find a Free Thought Forum meeting near you, to start your own local group, or to support this program through monthly donations, please visit While you’re there, be sure to check out our online store – now with freethought t-shirts, mugs, and other smart-looking swag!

In conversations about health, or any aspect of reality for that matter, it is important to remain as grounded and objective as possible. I will do my best to keep that in mind so that you can walk away with useful facts and not just a pile of opinions. My goals have been to start with a clean slate on any given subject, look into reputable sources, see what they say, and then build these lists from there. For every podcast released by the Free Thought Forum, a companion blog post is also created featuring a complete transcript of each episode. If you would like to take a look at my sources for the claims made here, you need only take a look at this episode’s corresponding blog post on our website.

Your mind is your most valuable tool and one that should be kept sharp! Most of the time, we don’t like to consider how common it is for our brains to deteriorate as we age or as we submit them to abuse. When it comes to the gray matter between our ears, I figure that it is always better to be safe than sorry, and that starts with a good idea of what it takes to maintain one’s mental health.

For our purposes, the general topic of “Mental Health” is divided into “Cognitive Health” (dealing with learning, memory, and general brain function) and “Emotional Health” (dealing with mood, stress, and so forth). I think this helps our conversation focus more on the brain and less on emotional disorders that deserve their own episodes.

Now that we are in the right headspace, the time has come to explore five things you can do to allow your brain to function at its best!

1. Maintain Your Physical Health through Sufficient Exercise, Sleep, & Nutrition

Alright, I have a confession to make. After talking about physical health and hygiene so much in past episodes, I said that we would move on to the mind. But some 80% of the relevant literature I’ve found on the behaviors that promote good brain function and cognitive health circle back to those things we have been talking about all along like exercise, proper diet, and getting plenty of sleep!

The thing is, the separation between the mind and body is a completely arbitrary one. There really isn’t a place where your physical body ends and your brain begins. It is all connected, and that connection is something that seems to grow ever more significate as our research into neurology, psychology, and other related sciences continues to expand. In short, if you want to keep your brain well, you must also maintain your physical health.

Your mental health, at any age, is strongly influenced by your physical wellbeing. Avoiding a sedentary lifestyle, exercising at least 30 minutes a day, drinking a glass of water with each meal, ensuring that half of each meal is comprised of diversified vegetables, getting about eight hours of sleep each night, and other such habits (explored in greater detail in “Part 1” of this series) have all been shown to protect against dementia and improve brain function such as executive control function, processing speed, synaptic plasticity, learning, memory, and other attentional processes.

2. Learn New Skills and Solve Challenging Puzzles

Your brain is a lot like your muscles in that it tends to be only strong enough to solve the problems with which it is presented. If you don’t happen to find yourself solving intense cognitive problems on a near-daily basis, then you would do well to take some time on most days to learn a new skill such as a language, dance, sport, or creative hobby. It also helps to play challenging word games like crossword puzzles, math games like Sudoku, and even difficult video games!

Of course, not all games are created equal. The one you played for 5 hours last Friday probably didn’t weigh too heavily on your cognitive load. If a game is getting easy, you need to move onto a greater challenge. The novelty of the task at hand is a big part of its positive impact on your mind. So switch the difficulty setting to “Hard,” or give a new game a try with completely different core mechanics.

3. Daily Book Reading

If you know about my background teaching elementary students, you probably saw this coming from a mile away. This healthy habit is related to the last one, but the studies on how it affects your cognition really caught my attention and I feel that giving it its own place on this list is justified.

Leisurely daily book reading has been shown to improve one’s academic performance, brain interconnectivity, vocabulary, overall intelligence, and more. Among the elderly, daily reading has even been shown to increase one’s lifespan!

But there is a catch: Not all kinds of reading lead to the same benefits. When we read from computers, smartphones, tablets, or other screens, we typically engage less of our brains, show less focus, and remember less of what we read. Therefore, reading is best done with physical books. (In case you were wondering, fewer benefits have been found with magazines or newspapers.)

You may be thinking, “But what about listening to podcasts?” I suspect that listening to a podcast is better for your brain than listening to something less mentally engaging, like pop music. But maintaining a coherent narrative in your mind, doing the mental work to translate words from a page, the focus required to make sense out of abstraction, etc. all lead to a much better mental workout than simply listening to something like your favorite radio personality. But, to be fair, I can be totally wrong about that. We know at least that book reading really goes a long way, so until I find out otherwise, I am perfectly comfortable asserting that we would do well to stick with the printed page for at least a few minutes every day.

As a side note: If you are in need of something mentally stimulating to read that also happens to encourage freethought, feel free to visit the Recommended Reading List on our website! I’ve recently added a couple of volumes to it and I’m pretty proud of the collection we have so far.

4. Abstain from or Reduce Drug and Alcohol Usage

When teens or young adults are first convinced to try things like weed, vaping, smoking, or alcohol, they tend not to be aware of the real effects these things have on the brain. Now, do they cause holes to form in your brain like what I was told when I was a teenager? No, but the effect they have isn’t “zero” either. When talking about mental health, we need to be honest with ourselves and with the facts. If we end up sounding like your grandparents or like stoners, that shouldn’t matter. The truth is what matters most. So here is the truth: These substances are powerful, and that power should be respected.

So that we don’t get lost in the weeds of this massive topic, I will give some statistics and move on. If you would like me to wrestle in greater depth with the mental effects of specific or general drug and alcohol use in the future, let me know!

Compared to those who don’t use drugs or alcohol, long-term daily marijuana users have poorer learning, memory, and slower reaction times on some tasks later in life. Long-term tobacco users also have been shown to have overall worse mental health and a 20% increased risk for cognitive impairment later in life. Those who drink alcohol (at least weekly) have a 17% increased risk for cognitive impairment in late adulthood, a risk that rises sharply with additional alcohol consumption.

5. Take a Day Off

We would also do well to occasionally give our minds time to rest. Overworking and mental fatigue is directly linked to various mental and emotional disorders. Therefore, it is important to dedicate something like an entire day each week to less-mentally-taxing tasks.

With that said, I’m not sure that starring at the TV, computer, or phone is considered a good break for your brain. I’m also not talking about sleep in this case. But there are people who tax their minds past their limits and I’ve seen the kind of devastating crashes that come as a result. If you don’t take enough breaks, your body tends to force you to take breaks, and that is a hard thing to watch. Your mental faculties need some time, every so often, to recover. So what things can you do to give your brain some much-deserved time off? I imagine that simple tasks like doing the dishes, gardening, or going for a walk all fall in this category. Perhaps even giving yourself some silence can help.

I’ll wrap up this episode on that note. I suppose that I speak for many of us when I say that we may be addicted to distraction. Ask yourself, when was the last time you listened to silence, or the white noise of the wind or city around you? Intentional periodic disconnection from the endless deluge of information made possible by the internet could yield impressive results. Maybe getting some peace and quiet is also worth thinking about when were are thinking about cognitive health.

If you have enjoyed this conversation or have learned something from it, please leave a like, subscribe, and share it with other open-minded people. All of those small things really do make a big difference and help others find our group and our podcast. Thank you!

That is all I have for you today, but the conversation continues across social media and in the comment sections below. Do you agree with today’s message? Am I mistaken about some detail? What feedback or ideas do you have for this program or our organization? Feel free to share your perspective.

A Special Shout-Out goes to Shayne Wissler, Lance Freeman, and Brooke!

Your monthly support makes this all possible. To check out our awesome donor rewards starting at one dollar per month, please visit:


  1. Vaynman, Shoshanna, and Fernando Gomez‐Pinilla. "Revenge of the “sit”: how lifestyle impacts neuronal and cognitive health through molecular systems that interface energy metabolism with neuronal plasticity." Journal of neuroscience research 84.4 (2006): 699-715.

  2. Voss, Michelle W., et al. "Revenge of the “sit” II: does lifestyle impact neuronal and cognitive health through distinct mechanisms associated with sedentary behavior and physical activity?." Mental Health and Physical Activity 7.1 (2014): 9-24.

  3.  Lee, Yunhwan, et al. "Systematic review of health behavioral risks and cognitive health in older adults." International psychogeriatrics 22.2 (2010): 174-187.

  4.  Hillman, Charles H., et al. "Physical activity and executive control: implications for increased cognitive health during older adulthood." Research quarterly for exercise and sport 75.2 (2004): 176-185.

  5.  Small, Gary W., et al. "Effects of a 14-day healthy longevity lifestyle program on cognition and brain function." The American journal of geriatric psychiatry 14.6 (2006): 538-545.

  6.  Walker, Matthew P., et al. "Cognitive flexibility across the sleep–wake cycle: REM-sleep enhancement of anagram problem solving." Cognitive Brain Research 14.3 (2002): 317-324.

  7. Allaire, Jason C., et al. "Successful aging through digital games: Socioemotional differences between older adult gamers and non-gamers." Computers in Human Behavior 29.4 (2013): 1302-1306.

  8. Mahncke, Henry W., et al. "Memory enhancement in healthy older adults using a brain plasticity-based training program: a randomized, controlled study." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 103.33 (2006): 12523-12528.

  9. Ferreira, Nicola, et al. "Associations between cognitively stimulating leisure activities, cognitive function and age‐related cognitive decline." International journal of geriatric psychiatry 30.4 (2015): 422-430.

  10. Davis, Philip, et al. "Reading: Brain, Mind and Body." Reading and Mental Health. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham, 2019. 293-320.

  11. Duff, Dawna, J. Bruce Tomblin, and Hugh Catts. "The influence of reading on vocabulary growth: A case for a Matthew effect." Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research 58.3 (2015): 853-864.

  12. Ritchie, Stuart J., Timothy C. Bates, and Robert Plomin. "Does learning to read improve intelligence? A longitudinal multivariate analysis in identical twins from age 7 to 16." Child development 86.1 (2015): 23-36.

  13. Bavishi, Avni, Martin D. Slade, and Becca R. Levy. "A chapter a day: Association of book reading with longevity." Social Science & Medicine 164 (2016): 44-48.

  14. Jabr, Ferris. "The reading brain in the digital age: The science of paper versus screens." Scientific American 11.5 (2013).

  15.  Hall, Wayne, and Michael Lynskey. "Long-term marijuana use and cognitive impairment in middle age." JAMA internal medicine 176.3 (2016): 362-363.

  16.  Lovell, M. E., et al. "Cognitive, physical, and mental health outcomes between long-term cannabis and tobacco users." Addictive behaviors 79 (2018): 178-188.

  17.  Wu, Jing, et al. "Relation of cigarette smoking and alcohol drinking in midlife with risk of cognitive impairment in late life: the Singapore Chinese Health Study." Age and ageing 48.1 (2018): 101-107.

  18.  Welch, Killian. "11 Cognitive and behavioural effects of chronic alcohol excess." (2017): A6-A6.

  19.  Kuroda, Sachiko, and Isamu Yamamoto. "Why do people overwork at the risk of impairing mental health?." Journal of Happiness Studies 20.5 (2019): 1519-1538.

  20.  Prasad, Bhairav, and Charu Thakur. "Chronic Overworking: Cause Extremely Negative Impact on Health and Quality of Life." Int. J. Adv. Microbiol. Health. Res 3.1 (2019): 11-15.


Written By Nicholas Burk, Executive Board Member © 2019 Free Thought Initiative

Free Thought ForumComment