There is probably no part of our body we take more for granted than our brains.
While most of exercise to keep our muscles and other organs healthy – or at least have the sense to know we should – few of us consider making lifestyle changes specifically to take care of the spongy matter in our skulls.
But as advancements in neurology wake us up to the fact that our brains need looked after like any other part of our anatomy, more and more people are realising that ‘eating a bit more fish’ isn’t quite going to cut it, any more than a five minute stroll one a week is going to keep you trim.
Here, then, are five ways you can tweak your daily routine to give your brain a short-term boost or a long-term work out. The benefits? Living longer at less risk of diseases like dementia and alzheimer's, and performing better at everything you do in life. So not bad, then.
1 | Switch your work out to the mornings
Lots of us hit the gym or go for a jog after a long day at work, but in brains terms, this represents a missed opportunity. If you can exercise in the morning, your brain activity will spike at the optimum time and your ability to retain new information and react to complex situations will increase.
2 | Swap coffee / tea for green tea
Every now and then a science report somewhere decrees that some fruit or vegetable or another is a ‘brain super food’, which is all well and good, but suddenly eating five portions of blueberries or kale a day when you never have before is a tad unrealistic.
Guzzling a cup of coffee or tea, on the other hand, is probably something you already do a few times a day, which is what makes this simple swap achievable and effective. Green tea, as we’ve banged on about before, is the closest thing you can get to a miracle in a cup. One of its multitude of benefits is that it contains slightly less caffine than coffee - the brain benefits of which you know all about - but also an amino acid known as L-theanine, which combines with the caffine to increase dopamine and alpha waves in your brain, basically making it function better. So buy a decent organic brand, and go green as soon as possible.
3 | Get your head around blue light
Blue light – the colour you can see in the visible light spectrum, as opposed to the types you can’t see, like ultra-violet – has a powerful impact on your brain activity. A good dose of it will sharpen your alertness more than a can of Red Bull ever could.
The best source, unsurprisingly, is that great swirling orb in the sky, so brain experts recommend going for a 15-minute walk within 30 minutes of waking up whenever possible to let the sun boost your brain for the day ahead. In more general terms: open blinds, sit near windows, walk outside whenever you can. The more sunlight bouncing off your noggin, the better you will operate.
On the flip side, too much blue light at night – and we’re mainly talking about the artificial glow of your smartphones and laptops here – is terrible for your sleep, because it is keeping your brain alert when it should be winding down. Try downloading F.lux, a free tool that replaces the blue light on your screens with harmless red and yellow light (it looks a bit weird, but you'll get used to it). A deeper sleep = a better brain in the morning.
4 | Play games
Depending on the type of company you keep, it may or may not surprise you to learn that human brains are remarkably similar to those of rats, which is why our rodent friends are so popular in neuroscience labs around the world.
And one of the things they’ve learned in those labs is that when rats are in cages filled with platforms, puzzles and toys, their brain activity goes through the roof, growing more brain cells, strengthening their memory and making them better at learning.
Consider, now, your own cage: chances are it involves a room, a computer, an internet connection and a lunch break. The internet is full of brain training games, so make like a rat and play a couple every day (there are some great free ones on the AARP website). Think of it as hitting the gym for your brain, only without the sweating.
5 | Embrace change
This may sound like the most vague point on this list, but it is also potentially the most fun and exciting. The simple fact is that the brain responds incredibly strongly to novelty (which is one of the reasons travelling to new places feels so stimulating), whether it is new information (reading or learning a new skill) or just processing new sensory experiences.
Because so much of our lives is built around habits, preferences and routines, the average day rarely involves much that is new, so the challenge is try and spot ways to mix things up a bit as you go about your everyday life.
It could be walking the dog a different route or driving a new way home. It could be rearranging the furniture in your house. It could be spending a night discovering music you haven’t heard. The point is, changes can alter motor pathways in the brain and encourage the growth of new cells. Your head is craving new experiences and information all the time, so within the framework of your life, give it some.