• Published November 23, 2021
  • 5 Minute Read

How to Boost Brain Health

Older Caucasian woman making smoothie in kitchen as she considers how to boost brain health and leadership effectiveness


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

Infographic: 4 Ways to Boost Brain Health

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.

1. Exercise.

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.

Access Our Webinar!

Watch our webinar, Building Resilience and Leadership in the Context of Crisis & Telework, and learn practical ways to enhance personal and team resilience and effectiveness during times of crisis.

3. Relax.

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.

4. 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 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.

Fit to Lead Recipes. To maintain optimal health and perform to your maximum potential. Links to a PDF file.

  • Published November 23, 2021
  • 5 Minute Read

Based on Research by

Sharon McDowell-Larsen
Sharon McDowell-Larsen

Sharon is an exercise physiologist and manages and facilitates our Fitness for Leadership programming, working primarily with C-suite executives in our Leadership at the Peak course.

What to Explore Next

Leading Effectively Article
Foods That Fuel Your Brain

When most of us think about the effects of our eating habits, we consider how certain foods help us slim down or bulk up. But what foods actually fuel your brain? Research shows that if you’re not already eating these foods, you should start.

Building Resilience and Leadership in the Context of Crisis & Telework

Watch this webinar to learn the importance of resilience and leadership and how to enhance personal and team effectiveness during times of crisis.

White Paper
(Better) Leadership Resources

With over 30 pages of insights gleaned from our research, this collection of resources includes actionable tips and team discussion questions to help you become a (better) leader with a focus on compassion, wellbeing, and belonging.

Leading Effectively Article
8 Practices for More Resilient Leadership

Learn why resilient leadership is important and 8 steps that will help you enhance it, in both your personal and professional life, with our research-based CORE resilience framework.

Leading Effectively Article
Create (Better) Culture: Build Belonging at Work

Leaders who build belonging in the workplace support more inclusive organizational cultures, paving the way for greater performance, innovation, satisfaction, and persistence through challenges.

Related Solutions

About CCL

The Center for Creative Leadership (CCL)® is a top-ranked, global, nonprofit provider of leadership development and a pioneer in the field of global leadership research. We know from experience how transformative remarkable leaders really can be.

Over the past 50 years, we’ve worked with organizations of all sizes from around the world, including more than 2/3 of the Fortune 1000. Our hands-on development solutions are evidence-based and steeped in our work with hundreds of thousands of leaders at all levels.