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5 brain exercises for bleary minds

Late-winter (and everyday) advice for staying sharp

winter brain workouts

Here’s some late-winter advice you may actually follow. I promise you will not have to rise even once from your desk to do something called calisthenics.

Nor will you have to forgo your Monday morning 20-ounce dark roast. Instead, we’ll be working on honing your brain. Relax. I realize that being razor sharp may not be fully attainable until the sun comes back for good. So let’s just try for alert.

1. Get out and walk

Even that can be an uphill battle these days. After all, your consciousness is dealing with the most information-saturated society in history. The result? Our brains have become what psychologists term “novelty-seeking.” All the more reason to filter the stimuli and find a balance. So park your need-to-dos for another 10 minutes while I bring in an expert.

Brian Thwaits, author of The Big Learn: Smart Ways to Use Your Brain is a former teacher who gives lively presentations on how to train your brain. From his home office in downtown Hamilton, Ontario, he revealed what he does to keep a nimble mind.

“Walking,” he says. “Every day I walk my Jack Russell terrier four times. Exercise turns out to be the best way to stay high functioning as you age. The brain is only two per cent of the body’s mass, but it takes up 20 per cent of its oxygen and calories. Staying active creates new neurons.”

“Exercise is the best way to stay high functioning as you age. The brain is only 2% of the body’s mass, but it takes up 20% of its oxygen and calories. Staying active creates new neurons”

— Brian Thwaits

2. Feed your brain

Thwaits also agrees with recent research that shows a Mediterranean diet (olive oil, fresh vegetables, fruits, some wine) minus gluten equals the perfect brain diet. He refers to books like Grain Brain and Wheat Belly which make the point that what you eat also feeds your brain. Avoid ‘muffin face’ or a ‘bagel brain,’ these books advise, by reducing the inflammation that gluten creates. Braintrainer Thwaits also takes the supplements B6, B12 and folate. If that’s what an expert does, it’s good enough for me.

3. Make sleep a priority

The third most important thing for your brain is sleep. We all know how much we really need, so just get it. Enough said.

4. Manage stress

Number four is managing stress. Remember to play. Take bubble baths. Sleep in. Say ‘No, absolutely not!’ to increasing demands on your time. If you’re an introvert, succumb to your need to recharge by withdrawing; extroverts relax by being social. This kind of mindfulness-awareness is about sanity and wisdom.

Vancouverite Brian Callahan is a former catholic priest with an MBA who trained as a Buddhist Lama and clinical counsellor. He’s now a mindfulness and leadership coach, giving seminars called Tune In and Wake Up. What does he do to keep an agile mind?

5. Make time to meditate

“I meditate almost every day for about two hours,” he says. “The purpose of mediation is not to be hooked to your meditation cushion like to a land line. It is to be able to tune in everywhere like with a cell phone.” Where, oh where, will we be able to find the time to meditate? He suggests starting with a Coffee Meditation. “In the first half hour of the day, while I am waking up, making coffee, puttering around, I practice mindfulness. Whenever you are doing anything that you are going to do anyway, you can pay attention to it and nothing else. Just be [in] that moment.”

“[G]ood decision-making often comes down to mustering focus, clarity and calm”

—Brian Callahan

That sounds like the ultimate in multitasking to me and very do-able. In an article for the August issue of British Columbia’s Insights into Clinical Counselling, Callahan wrote that “good decision-making often comes down to mustering focus, clarity and calm. That’s not easy in a world of global supply chains, shorter product cycles and general information overload. Which is why the notion that businesspeople can develop their attention skills, just as they’d learn accounting or finance, is catching on. Companies are embracing mindfulness training with the aim of making their workforces less reactive, more resilient; even more creative.”

Callahan also exercises most days of the week and removes as many sugars and refined starches from his diet as possible – within reason. “Life is short so I don’t want to become a food purist,” he explains. “I enjoy a fine French meal and wine or a dessert, but only once in a while.”

I asked him if has any other habits that get him through the winter. His answer: “I have a full-spectrum light that is on all the time in the background. Sitting in an aura of daylight, especially in Vancouver’s dreary weather, really cheers me up.” ◊