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How exercise and diet impact your brain health


It's February, which means time is already ticking on those New Year's resolutions made last month. For many of us, losing weight and/or getting fit was likely on the list. But what about getting smarter? Most executives would agree that they could benefit from a sharper, more agile mind, but how realistic is that goal? As it turns out, not only is it plausible to "get smarter," it may be an automatic benefit of the resolution to slim down and get in shape.

Last month, Wendy A. Suzuki, a professor of neural science and psychology at New York University, authored an article for Quartz in which she claims that the neurological benefits of exercise could have profound, positive implications for how we live, learn, and age as a society. Her article offered some motivating takeaways that help to explain how exercise can do just that.

  • Exercise combats stress. The chronic stressors we face every day can harvest negative feelings. Exercise can combat those feelings through increases in key neurotransmitters that are often depleted by anxiety and depression.
  • Exercise improves our ability to shift and focus attention. A recent study conducted by Suzuki and her colleagues showed that exercise improved prefrontal cortex functioning. Need your brain to be at its best for a big meeting or presentation? Squeeze in a workout first.
  • Exercise can improve our memory and attention span. According to Suzuki and a recent studies in rodents, "Increased levels of physical exercise can result in improved memory by enhancing both the birth rate and the survival of new hippocampal brain cells."

Dr. Tara Swart agrees: We can be slimmer AND smarter this year

Our own resident neuroscientist and Senior Lecturer, Dr. Tara Smart, agrees that it's possible to get slimmer and smarter at the same time, as a result of exercise and proper nutrition--to really make it count. In addition to the benefits of healthy activity, what you choose to put in your mouth can have a profound impact on your mind. A recent blog on her website shared healthy tips from nutritionist Hayley Pedrick to help our brains be refreshed, revived, and prepared for the New Year.

  • Get your fats straight. Adopting a low carbohydrate diet that is higher in fat is one of the easiest ways to induce a mildly ketogenic state which is supportive of weight loss as well as brain health. There are two star players in this diet: Medium chain triglycerides (MCT’s), which are important in the process of producing the brains’ fat energy source, and Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) a polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acid required for normal brain development and function and helpful for vital synapse formation. Read the full post to learn more about these tips. MCTs are found in foods like coconut oil and olive oil, and DHA is found in abundance in certain fish. Learn more.
  • Spice things up. Meet turmeric, the golden spice and member of the ginger family that is now a nutritional darling. Its active constituent, curcumin, works to protect neurological tissue as well as enhance the growth of new brain cells.
  • Take a tea break. Green tea has the ability to reduce damage to proteins and lipids in the brain, providing a mechanism that safeguards your grey matter. The polyphenols found in black tea have also been shown to have a positive effect on gut bacteria, preventing damage to the brain from potentially harmful agents in our digestive systems.

 Read the full blog post, "Slimmer and Smarter For The New Year?"

Dr. Swart provides wellbeing programs dedicated to improving cognitive function, decision-making, and peak performance, and she also brings these same techniques to MIT Sloan for her short executive programs. We invite you to learn more about Dr. Swart's upcoming course Applied Neuroscience: Unleashing Brain Power for You and Your People (March 14–15). This groundbreaking two-day program will help you drive success and innovation throughout your organization, taking you--brain and body--through a method of unleashing potential in others.

"In our neuroscience programs at MIT Sloan Exec Ed, we don't just lecture about neuroscience," says Dr. Swart, "we put in place options for exercise, yoga, and meditation. We also cater for brain friendly foods and optimal hydration levels to assist learning and retention of high performance behaviors."

Read other related posts on this blog: "Stress: It's a mind-body connection that affects us all," "Are you due for a digital detox," and "The leadership skill you're neglecting? Sleep."

This entry was posted in Work-life balance on Fri Feb 05, 2016 by MIT Sloan Executive Education