If you designed a lifestyle that’s the antithesis of good cognitive function and long-term brain health, the life of an average executive would come pretty close.
Sharon McDowell-Larsen is an exercise physiologist who is in charge of the Fitness for Leadership portion of our course for senior executives, Leadership at the Peak.
“The brain is the seat of intelligence, emotion, and memory, and it initiates movements and behaviors,” McDowell-Larsen explained. “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 — today, tomorrow, next week — and 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 risk for dementia, mild cognitive impairment, and Alzheimer’s disease.
What can you do? In her white paper, The Care and Feeding of the Leader’s Brain, McDowell-Larsen draws on many research streams and shares findings from our database of thousands of senior leaders.
She gives recommendations for exercise, diet, stress reduction, and sleep, creating a compelling read on how to boost brain health and function.
4 Ways to Boost Your Brain Health
If you focus on improving your habits in these 4 areas, you can greatly improve your brain health:
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.
2. Feed Your Brain.
Does the amount and type of food we eat impact our ability to think, or affect and 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.
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-Larson said.
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 face ambiguity and uncertainty, efforts to find coping strategies like relaxation, re-framing problems, and clarifying areas of control are particularly important.
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 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.
Participants in our Leadership at the Peak program learn about healthy habits for success in work and life, including more detail about the 4 above.