If you were to design a lifestyle that is the antithesis of good cognitive function and long-term brain health, the life of an average executive would come pretty close.
Sharon McDowell-Larsen, Ph.D, is an exercise physiologist who is in charge of the Fitness for Leadership module of Leadership at the Peak, CCL’s course for senior executives.
“The brain is the seat of intelligence, emotion and memory, and it initiates movements and behaviors,” says McDowell-Larson. “But we are 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 levels, diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity — have also been shown to increase risk for dementia, mild cognitive impairment, and Alzheimer’s disease.
What to do? In her new white paper, The Care and Feeding of the Leader’s Brain, McDowell-Larsen draws on many research streams and shares findings from CCL’s 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
Exercise: The Magic Bullet. CCL asked more than 1,500 senior leaders if they think exercise affects how they perform. Eighty-eight percent said exercise “clearly impacts” their performance, and 12% said it had “some” impact. None said it had no impact.
When we asked how exercise impacts performance, we heard 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.
Others were improved mood, outlook, attitude, self-confidence and a sense of well-being.
You don’t have to aggressively train to see the 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.
Feed Your Brain. Does the amount and type of food we eat impact our ability to think 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 as well.
When CCL 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, says McDowell-Larson.
Counter the Effects of Stress. What gets our brains into trouble is the prolonged stress we encounter in modern living. It’s the type of stress that is measured in days, weeks and months, not minutes.
Stress and its hormonal by-products 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, which is released by your adrenals. The reverse is true: as your perceived level of control goes down, the distress and cortisol go up.
As leaders face ambiguity and uncertainty, efforts to find coping strategies (i.e. exercise, relaxation, re-framing problems) and to clarify areas of control are all the more important.
Sleep. 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 a person needs can vary from person to person, but the sweet spot seems to be in the 7-to-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.
For specific tips and lists from Sharon, as well as research findings and a detailed bibliography, see The Care and Feeding of the Leader’s Brain.
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