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Protect Your Asset by Being Your Own Brain Fitness Coach

Last week I had the good for­tune of spend­ing four days in Nuevo Val­larta, Mex­ico, with over 300 amaz­ing indi­vid­u­als from 40+ coun­tries who had been named Young Global Lead­ers by the World Eco­nomic Forum. The sum­mit agenda was insight­ful and inspir­ing, con­ver­sa­tions with other par­tic­i­pants always proved to be eye-opening and stim­u­lat­ing, and the over­all atmos­phere was con­struc­tive. You can read more about some of those con­ver­sa­tions here.

What I’d like to high­light in this arti­cle is the remark­able (and optional) activ­ity that started off every day at 7 in the morn­ing. Called “Pro­tect Your Asset”, it con­sisted of three sched­uled activ­i­ties: run­ning, yoga, swim­ming, and other self-driven ones.

Have you ever attended a con­fer­ence where ‘Pro­tect­ing Your Asset’ is placed in such a promi­nent role? I believe it is a sign of hope­ful times to come, where we real­ize that “our Asset” is not our so-called “net worth”, but our brain and mind – the cen­ter of our capac­ity to learn, to under­stand the envi­ron­ment around us, to envi­sion the role we can play to improve it, and to then make good deci­sions, reg­u­lat­ing behav­iors, thoughts and emo­tions, to become pos­i­tive changemakers.

If we truly believe our brains are a key asset each of us has to pro­tect, grow, invest in over time, and that “cap­i­tal is being super­seded by cre­ativ­ity and the abil­ity to inno­vate — and there­fore by human tal­ents”, the nat­ural ques­tion arises, “How can all of us make informed deci­sions while nav­i­gat­ing the maze of frag­mented brain/ mind research, often super­fi­cial media cov­er­age and biased mar­ket­ing claims”?

In a class I have taught for sev­eral years via UC-Berkeley Osher Life­long Learn­ing Insti­tute and now online through SharpBrains.com, we approach this as solv­ing a jig­saw puz­zle. (Reg­is­tra­tion to Spring Class is closed, but you can sub­scribe to our eNewslet­ter to stay informed about future courses and resources.)

 

A cru­cial insight that is often over­looked is that there is no gen­eral solu­tion or magic pill that may by itself be enough to “Pro­tect Our Asset.” Instead, there is a grow­ing under­stand­ing that a num­ber of lifestyle options and tools, when prop­erly inte­grated and tar­geted, can make a clear and sus­tain­able dif­fer­ence on brain health and per­for­mance. The four lifestyle fac­tors (or “basics to address”) we high­light above are syn­er­gis­tic– mean­ing, it makes lit­tle sense to focus on just one and ignore the oth­ers. A sen­si­ble approach would in fact be the oppo­site: to iden­tify and try to address weak spots which may be act­ing as bot­tle­necks. And the same prin­ci­ple applies to the “Cross-train your brain” theme. The ben­e­fits from each of those four research-based brain train­ing method­olo­gies are highly com­ple­men­tary, so one would do well to iden­tify and address weak spots through those tar­geted method­olo­gies. And, to do all this, one needs to learn to self-monitor, to pri­or­i­tize, to plan.

Let’s then explore the jig­saw puz­zle, piece by piece, on How to Pro­tect our Assets by Being Our Own Brain Fit­ness Coaches:

  1. Debunk brain myths: we need to first under­stand “the Asset.” How could we keep our cars run­ning if we didn’t know how and when to add gas and oil?
  2. Nutri­tion: Did you know that the brain only weighs 2% of body mass but con­sumes over 20% of the oxy­gen and nutri­ents we intake? As a gen­eral rule, we don’t need expen­sive nutri­tional sup­ple­ments to improve brain func­tion­ing, but to avoid stuff­ing our­selves with the “bad stuff”.
  3. Phys­i­cal exer­cise: Aer­o­bic exer­cise (in any form, includ­ing play­ing sports) brings mul­ti­ple brain-based ben­e­fits; the bare min­i­mum would be 3 times a week, 30 min­utes each time.
  4. Stress man­age­ment: Stress and anx­i­ety, whether induced by exter­nal events or by your own inter­nal processes, con­tributes to the death of neu­rons, and low­ers the cre­ation of new ones.
  5. Men­tal stim­u­la­tion: The point of hav­ing a brain is pre­cisely to learn and to adapt to chal­leng­ing new envi­ron­ments. Once new neu­rons appear in our brains, where they migrate and how long they sur­vive depends on how we use them. “Use It or Lose It” does not mean “do cross­word puz­zle num­ber 1,234,567″. It means “chal­lenge your brain often with new and mean­ing­ful activities”.
  6. Med­i­ta­tion: A great prac­tice to build atten­tion and mon­i­tor and reg­u­late men­tal processes.
  7. Refram­ing: We can prac­tice pos­i­tive, action-oriented, thoughts until they become our default mind­set, enabling us to look for­ward to chal­lenges in a con­struc­tive way.
  8. Biofeed­back: Great tool to self-monitor heart rate vari­abil­ity (objec­tive mea­sure of phys­i­o­log­i­cal stress) and to build emo­tional resilience.
  9. Cog­ni­tive train­ing: New com­put­er­ized brain train­ing tools can help enhance tar­geted func­tions that tend to decline with age, such as atten­tion, work­ing mem­ory, and infor­ma­tion pro­cess­ing speed.
  10. Self-monitor: As men­tioned above, there are no “magic pills or solu­tions”. We need to learn how to iden­tify areas that need improve­ment via intro­spec­tion and exter­nal sources such as (with cau­tion) biofeed­back read­ings and online cog­ni­tive assess­ments and games.
  11. Pri­or­i­tize: Often, what we need is to not bet­ter answers, but bet­ter ques­tions, such as the ones out­lined in this 10-question eval­u­a­tion check­list.
  12. Coach your­self:  At the end of the day, no mat­ter how much I can del­e­gate (or “out­source”) a num­ber of deci­sions to pro­fes­sion­als and to tools, I need to make my own deci­sions, and mis­takes, and learn from them. That way, I am train­ing my own brain, not my neighbor’s.

Pro­tect­ing Your Asset starts, then, by being your own and well-informed brain fit­ness coach. For inspi­ra­tion, one can count on the wis­dom of many sharp brains:

Be the change you want to see in the world.” (Mahatma Gandhi)

Each man can be, if he so deter­mines, the sculp­tor of his own brain.” (San­ti­ago Ramon y Cajal)

“Every­thing should be kept as sim­ple as pos­si­ble, but no sim­pler.” (Albert Einstein)

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