“To enjoy good health, to bring true happiness to one’s family, to bring peace to all, one must first discipline and control one’s mind. If a man can control his mind he can find the way to Enlightenment, and all wisdom and virtue will naturally come to him.”
“Studies have shown that you can help prevent cognitive decline…with some basic good health habits…there are various strategies we can use to protect and sharpen our minds.”
– Harvard Medical School
Intro: The Buddha and…Harvard?
Quoting the Great Buddha – a sage that lived in ancient India, and Harvard Medical School – a preeminent institution of medical education – may appear to be a juxtaposition of the highest degree.
The opposite, however, couldn’t be more true. Harvard Medical School has published various research studies predicated on the very practices that Buddha himself promulgated thousands of years ago: mindfulness, self-awareness, meditation, and other means of harnessing the power of the human mind.
Similarly, both the Buddha and Harvard Medical School posit that one’s mind is a uniquely human component – one meant to be developed and strengthened. The very latest neuroscientific research studies (e.g. neuroplasticity, neurogenesis) have all reached one important conclusion: the mind/brain possess the innate capacity to develop throughout life.
Which segues into the topic of this article: methods of sharpening what is undoubtedly our greatest gift, our mind.
Here, we present 11 scientifically-validated means of keeping the mind and brain sharp. Additionally, these practices will further enhance many of the mind’s unique capabilities: critical-thinking, judgement, creativeness, focus, attention, and even spiritual connection.
Here are 11 ways to keep the mind and brain sharp:
1. Prioritize lifelong learning
According to Harvard University, “A higher level of education is associated with better mental functioning in old age.” However, that doesn’t mean you need a Ph.D. to take advantage.
The ultimate goal is to challenge your brain. It doesn’t matter the challenge is a Master’s thesis, pursuance of a new hobby, or learning a new skill. If your brain is learning something, it’s staying sharp.
2. Believe in the power of your mind
Negative stereotypes about aging and memory are mostly untrue – and can actually contribute to memory problems. On the other hand, if you possess confidence in your ability to maintain and improve the sharpness of your mind, you’re much more likely to engage it in activities that promote mental acuity.
3. Create a routine for the simple things
Lost keys, forgotten birthdays, getting lost…all of these trivial annoyances drain the mind’s capacity.
When you use tools (e.g. calendars, maps, lists, etc.) to keep these things in order, your brain is able to concentrate on learning and development. As far as misplacing things, designate a specific place in your home to keep the keys, eyeglasses, wallet…etc.
4. Repeat, repeat, repeat…
When you come across some piece of info that you want or need to remember, either write it down or repeat it out loud. Repetition helps to reinforce the neural connections responsible for remembering things.
5. Don’t “cram”…at any age, or for any reason
Related to #5, using repetition to memorize information is wonderful – if the timing is correct. Most people are not very adept at remembering unrelated information in a short period of time.
When you need to “study” or remember important details, it is extremely beneficial to designate periods of time to do so. Don’t “cram”…it doesn’t work.
6. Get your body moving
Researchers believe that regular exercise “may be the single most important thing you can do” for brain health, especially over the long-term. While our heart and lungs are pumping, the brain is getting fit as well.
Aim for at least 30 minutes of exercise every other day.
7. Understand and remember the importance of nutrition
Fitting that nutrition comes after exercise, as they are two of the most important determinants to long-term mind health.
First, it’s important to understand the intricate relationship between nutrition and brain health. Glycogen is the brain’s number one source of energy – and this source is expended quickly. The best option is a low glycemic nutrition plan – high fiber, moderate protein, and low fat.
8. Get plenty of sleep…but not too much
We’ll keep this simple: you should be sleeping 7 to 9 hours per night. Our brain cannot effectively consolidate and reorganize the prior day’s activities, otherwise. On the opposite end of the spectrum, hibernating for 10-plus hours a night accomplishes nil.
Poor sleep over the long-term is directly linked to cognitive decline in old age. If you’re not prioritizing sleep, you’re sacrificing your mental and physical health.
9. Mitigate and manage stress
Stress causes the instantaneous release of cortisol – a harmful chemical that interferes with a number of important brain and body functions. Obviously, this is bad.
That said, we’re realists. Stress is a daily occurrence for everyone and everything alive on this planet. The solution: eliminate stressors where they can be (e.g. move away from that annoying co-worker) and find a healthy method of stress relieve (e.g. a Chinese massage, video games, a book, whatever…)
10. Embrace cognitive challenges
We want reemphasize the importance of exercising the mind. Just as your body can not get healthy without being pushed, neither can your brain.
And here’s the thing…a brain challenge can be fun! Use your smartphone and find a brain teaser; pick up the newspaper and look for the daily crossword; play a board or computer game. As long as your brain is “active,” it’s all good!
We can’t quote Buddha without mentioning the benefits of meditation and/or mindfulness. We’ll stick with the same theme and include Harvard in on this one, as well.
Here’s a quote by Dr. Sara Lazar, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Harvard Medical School:
“Although the practice of meditation is associate with a sense of peacefulness and physical relaxation, practitioners have long claimed that meditation provides cognition and psychological benefits…This study demonstrates that changes in brain structure may underlie some of these reported improvements and that people are not just feeling better because they are spending time relaxing.”
Denninger, J., Lazar, S., Vago, D. (2016). Now and Zen: How mindfulness can change your brain and improve your health. [PDF]. Retrieved from https://hms.harvard.edu/sites/default/files/assets/Harvard%20Now%20and%20Zen%20Reading%20Materials.pdf
Harvard Health Publications. (2015). Improving age-related memory loss. [PDF]. Retrieved January 6, 2017 from http://www.health.harvard.edu/healthbeat/6-simple-steps-to-keep-your-mind-sharp-at-any-age
Nixon, R. (2011, February 11). 10 Ways to Keep Your Mind Sharp. Retrieved January 06, 2017, from http://www.livescience.com/12915-10-ways-mind-sharp.html
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