New book provides practical guidance for women (and men) to rebalance our lifestyles and build Cognitive Reserve

On one of our “walk and talks” around the lush trails of Rock Creek Park in DC sur­round­ed by bik­ers, run­ners, cars and the occa­sion­al deer, Wendy and Lisa talked about aging. Wendy’s moth­er, who had her chil­dren in her ear­ly 20s, was still join­ing the family’s gru­el­ing sum­mer hikes with her chil­dren and nine grand­chil­dren well into her 60s. Wendy mused about how much old­er she would be when their kids could have their own kids. It dawned on her that her health was not just a here and now issue, but an invest­ment in that future. We agreed to help each oth­er cul­ti­vate the habits and make time to build strength as well as reserves, both phys­i­cal and men­tal, for the long-term. Their goal: to enjoy being active in their 40s and 50s while also lay­ing the ground­work to con­tin­ue being active into their 60s, 70s, and beyond.

The idea of apply­ing this reserve con­cept to phys­i­cal and also men­tal health is pow­er­ful and attrac­tive. Two years after Lisa’s luck­i­ly benign health scare, she found her­self in anoth­er doctor’s office. This time it was with an ortho­pe­dic sur­geon. After more than twen­ty years of wak­ing up to morn­ing runs mul­ti­ple times per week, Lisa’s right knee sud­den­ly start­ed to smart and make click­ing sounds on every step. For her, run­ning was her hap­py, qui­et place. Part of her morn­ing rou­tine to clear her mind with the med­i­ta­tive rhythm of repet­i­tive steps. And a place to com­pose thoughts, rehearse speech­es, or mull over con­ver­sa­tions. The MRI had picked up a torn menis­cus, a very com­mon runner’s injury.

Lisa asked the ortho­pe­dist about the like­ly caus­es and what she could do about it. Dis­sat­is­fied with his “wear and tear” diag­no­sis – which she heard as “you are get­ting old and it’s all down­hill from here” – she pushed for some­thing she could fix, like a cer­tain gait that could be altered. Months lat­er when her ego start­ed to mend and her knee start­ed to heal thanks to more vari­ety in her exer­cise rou­tine (spin class­es and bike rides), Lisa reset her per­spec­tive. Rather than feel sor­ry for her­self and imag­ine her body in irre­versible decline, she decid­ed to con­scious­ly take steps to set a new nor­mal of phys­i­cal and men­tal health, a reserve, so that the future declines would be com­ing from a much high­er baseline.

Build­ing reserves is not just a phys­i­cal issue, but also a men­tal one. Lisa’s hus­band, Álvaro, CEO and Edi­tor-in-chief of Sharp­Brains, has impressed upon her the impor­tance of build­ing cog­ni­tive, emo­tion­al, neur­al, and men­tal resilience by har­ness­ing life­long neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty. Just as we devel­op car­dio capac­i­ty, mus­cles, and core strength by doing cir­cuit train­ing and a range of phys­i­cal exer­cis­es, we can build brain reserves with healthy nutri­tion, phys­i­cal and cog­ni­tive exer­cise, stress reg­u­la­tion, curios­i­ty, and life­long learn­ing. The cog­ni­tive reserve itself is made up of neu­rons and their con­nec­tions patient­ly built day after day, year after year. Stud­ies have shown that hav­ing a larg­er cog­ni­tive reserve serves as a “buffer” that helps peo­ple sub­stan­tial­ly delay symp­toms of cog­ni­tive impair­ment and demen­tia even when Alzheimer’s mark­ers are phys­i­cal­ly present in their brain.

Research shows that nov­el­ty, vari­ety and chal­lenge are key ingre­di­ents to strength­en neur­al path­ways. Exer­cise helps with the gen­er­a­tion of new neu­rons. Reg­u­lat­ing stress helps pro­tect those new neu­rons. In addi­tion, the more we prac­tice some­thing, the more we strength­en neur­al con­nec­tions, mak­ing them resilient and longer last­ing. It turns out that one of the most reward­ing and pow­er­ful way to stim­u­late our brain and build up our cog­ni­tive reserves is to cul­ti­vate a beginner’s mind. It is good news that enroll­ments spiked dur­ing the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic on a wide range of top­ics from learn­ing Span­ish on Duolin­go, to bak­ing on Tik Tok, or jug­gling on Mas­ter­class. The more we learn and chal­lenge our­selves, the more we cre­ate new neu­rons and for­ti­fy their con­nec­tions. Neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty con­tin­ues for our entire life. The ear­li­er we start, the bet­ter; but it’s nev­er too late to start.

Lisa’s hus­band also taught her a sim­ple but pow­er­ful visu­al­iza­tion exer­cise that takes only a minute or two and can entire­ly change your mood, help­ing to reg­u­late stress. You touch your thumb to each fin­ger while visu­al­iz­ing and ful­ly recall­ing, lit­tle by lit­tle, four moments in your life. A moment of phys­i­cal exer­tion. A lov­ing exchange. An unex­pect­ed gift. The most beau­ti­ful landscape.

It is dif­fi­cult to remain healthy when we are in an unhealthy envi­ron­ment, whether at work or at home. Ear­ly in the pan­dem­ic, there was a cas­cade of shut­downs glob­al­ly as coun­tries sought to con­tain the virus. Lisa found that the sense of los­ing con­trol was pal­pa­ble among team mem­bers from all cor­ners of the globe, and it was com­pound­ing her own anx­i­ety. She found solace in doing ten-minute guid­ed med­i­ta­tions on her phone using her favorite Head­space app. One day, she decid­ed to share the spir­it with her team. She start­ed her work calls with a quick, six­ty sec­ond, guid­ed med­i­ta­tion. While the exer­cise took only one minute, she saw from the reac­tions of col­leagues how use­ful it was to cre­ate a space free of the whirling movies and wor­ries in our minds. Instead of divert­ing time from the press­ing needs of work, it turned out that tak­ing a few moments of calm at the start of calls had a very pos­i­tive effect. Cre­at­ing space to cen­ter and clear the non-stop dis­trac­tions of the pan­dem­ic made it eas­i­er to focus and be one’s best.

The more com­plex our lives are, the more we need sim­ple things that can ground us and help us to be more resilient – to rebal­ance and rebal­ance and rebal­ance again. Build­ing the men­tal mus­cles to find bal­ance when one gets off bal­ance is a crit­i­cal skill thrive and to build cog­ni­tive reserve in our fast-chang­ing times. As our month­ly gath­er­ings showed us over the years, prac­tic­ing rebal­ance in good com­pa­ny not only rein­forces neur­al path­ways and capa­bil­i­ties but also strength­ens the bonds of trust and con­fi­dence that are invalu­able to build a healthy envi­ron­ment to thrive in.

– This is an adapt­ed excerpt from the new book Rebal­ance: How Women Lead, Par­ent, Part­ner and Thrive (Change­mak­ers Books; June 1st 2022) by Lisa Neu­berg­er Fer­nan­dez, Mon­i­ca Brand Engel and Wendy Jager­son Tele­ki, below.

About SharpBrains

SHARPBRAINS is an independent think-tank and consulting firm providing services at the frontier of applied neuroscience, health, leadership and innovation.
SHARPBRAINS es un think-tank y consultoría independiente proporcionando servicios para la neurociencia aplicada, salud, liderazgo e innovación.

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