How to Boost Brain Health
Since the pandemic, many of us have been spending more time at home than we used to. It’s a great opportunity to develop habits that help boost our brain health and enable us to show up as the most effective leaders we can be during a stressful and uncertain time.
Sharon McDowell-Larsen, an exercise physiologist who has worked for years in the Fitness for Leadership portion of our Leadership at the Peak program for C-suite leaders, specializes in educating top executives about the most effective ways to optimize brain function.
“The brain is the seat of intelligence, emotion, and memory, and it initiates movements and behaviors,” McDowell-Larsen explains.
“But we’re prone to treating our brains like pieces of junk.”
Lack of sleep, poor dietary habits, stress, lack of regular exercise, and smoking can all contribute to worsened cognitive performance in the short term — today, tomorrow, and next week — and to weaker brain health in the long term.
In fact, the same factors that increase our risk for heart attacks — elevated cholesterol, diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity — have also been shown to increase our risk for dementia, mild cognitive impairment, and Alzheimer’s disease.
What can you do to boost the health of your brain, and your effectiveness as a leader at the same time?
How Do I Boost My Brain Health?
4 Research-Backed Recommendations
Based on research findings from our database of thousands of senior leaders, McDowell-Larsen gives recommendations for exercise, diet, stress reduction, and sleep to boost brain health and leadership function. If you focus on improving your habits in these 4 areas, you can greatly improve your brain health and leadership effectiveness.
We asked more than 1,500 senior leaders if they think exercise affects how they perform. Almost 90% said exercise “clearly impacts” their performance, and 12% said it had “some” impact. Nobody said it had zero impact.
When we asked how exercise impacts performance, respondents said it improved energy and helped with stress.
But many of the responses had to do with brain performance. Clearer thinking, improved problem-solving and focus, increased alertness during the day, improved mental clarity and creativity, and better mental health were among the benefits cited.
People also said that exercise improved their mood, outlook, attitude, self-confidence, and sense of wellbeing.
You don’t have to aggressively train to see cognitive benefits. Even walking a few times a week can make a difference. But sessions of more than 30 minutes seem to have the most positive impact. If you struggle to make time for this, just remember that exercise is directly linked with leadership effectiveness.
2. Eat Healthfully.
Does the amount and type of food we eat impact our ability to think or affect the long-term health of our brain? More and more, science is showing that yes, food can and does have profound effects on the brain. Food can fuel your brain — or undermine its performance.
Executives report this to be the case, too.
When we asked whether diet impacted their performance, 75% of executives said it clearly impacted how they felt and performed. Most reported that when they didn’t eat well, they felt sluggish, lethargic, and less alert. Conversely, they said a healthy diet helps with sleep, energy, and feeling better.
A plant-based, whole foods diet is the best course of action, McDowell-Larsen says. NOTE: We offer a complimentary PDF booklet of “Fit to Lead” recipes to help you fuel your body with nourishing foods when you’re cooking at home.
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What gets our brains into trouble is prolonged stress. It’s the type of stress that’s measured in days, weeks, and months, rather than minutes.
Stress and its hormonal byproducts profoundly affect the brain. Protracted elevations of cortisol — which is released by your adrenals as a stress response — are detrimental to good brain function.
Probably the biggest moderators of distress are control and predictability. As control goes up, perceived distress goes down — and so does cortisol. The reverse is true: as your perceived level of control goes down, the distress and cortisol go up.
For leaders facing ambiguity, uncertainty, and anxiety, efforts to find coping strategies like relaxation, reframing problems, and clarifying areas of control are even more important. It also helps to breathe correctly. You may have heard well-intentioned suggestions to “just breathe” when facing stress. But you shouldn’t actually take a deep breath when you’re stressed, as your exhale matters much more than your inhale.
Like exercise, sleep is critical for good health, mental sharpness, and consistent energy. In fact, we can last longer and function better on no food than on no sleep.
Exactly how much sleep you need can vary from person to person, but you’ve probably heard that the sweet spot seems to be in the 7–8 hour range. Only about 10% of the population can function optimally on less than 7 hours.
Getting a solid night’s sleep can certainly be an ongoing challenge with travel, work, and family demands. It can often come down to a trade-off between extra sleep and other healthy habits, but guard your sleep time as much as possible. Sleep can make you a stronger leader for sure.
Together, these 4 steps are small ways to boost your brain health in a challenging time.
Ready to Take the Next Step?
Get our recipes to boost brain health and your leadership effectiveness will improve in turn. Access our complimentary PDF collection of recipes from the exercise physiologist who works closely with senior executives in the “Fit to Lead” portion of our Leadership at the Peak development program for C-suite leaders.