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