Want better brain health? Make a change in your hobbies, diet and lifestyle
The coronavirus pandemic has brought unprecedented changes to the way we live our lives. Humans are highly social beings, but with countries around the world introducing guidelines urging residents to limit their contact with other people, the fabric of what it means to be human has been radically challenged.
Unfortunately, social isolation and subsequent feelings of loneliness could have a devastating impact on our stress levels and other cognitive functions. It’s more important than ever to ensure you’re taking care of your mental wellbeing in these trying times. The Mental Health Training guide by specialist lawyers Bolt Burdon Kemp contains some tips to help cope with the new environment we’re all living in.
Can’t go to the gym? Try doing an online yoga class
With the government lockdown forcing gyms and sports clubs to close, many are seeking alternative routes to staying active. Fortunately, regular exercise can help your brain stay healthy too. A study on brain health found that introducing behaviours that modify your lifestyle through nutrition and exercise can help slow down age-related cognitive decline such as dementia.
The study specifically recommended yoga as a form of physical activity that not only is easy to pick up, but also suitable for those with disabilities or symptoms that may prevent them from doing other, more vigorous forms of exercise. Amy Zellmer, who suffered a traumatic brain injury after an accident, found that starting yoga saw a steady improvement in her cognitive functions and physical abilities. “I was able to breathe deeper than I had since the accident, my flexibility was coming back (slowly), and my dizziness and balance issues were starting to bother me less. My range of motion was growing.”
Furthermore, preliminary studies have found that yoga-based mindfulness (or mindfulness in general) has cognitive benefits including a better attention span, increased memory capacity and ability to carry out executive functions such as flexible thinking, self-control and emotional response. All this suggests that, as people look for alternatives to replace their gym routine, taking up yoga could be a powerful alternative.
How to maintain wellbeing at home
But it doesn’t have to stop (or start) at yoga. For those who are facing spending weeks at home, adopting any sort of physical activity that they enjoy is likely to help ensure their brain remains healthy. Studies have found improvements in brain function when participants take up other forms of exercise. This includes Zumba or other aerobic exercises helping improve memory, motor function and depression or general physical activity helping improve cognition for children and adolescents.
Studies have shown further activities that may help maintain mental wellbeing include “cognitively simulating activities” such as brainteasers, educational activities, mental challenges, as well as creative activities and hobbies such as baking, painting, crafts, drama, dancing and music. “Playing music is the best form of exercise for our brains,” says Elizabeth Nightingale, a neurologic music therapist at Chiltern Music Therapy. “If one part of our brain is damaged or impaired, music can still reach multiple other areas, helping to stimulate the brain and keep it as healthy and as active as possible.”
And, as music therapist Bernice Chu explains, “listening to music releases endorphins in our brain, boosting people’s moods, and evoking emotions and memories. Research has shown that engaging someone in music therapy intervention can reduce agitation, anxiety and much more.” Whatever you like to do, occupying your time with creative pursuits you enjoy can help keep your brain healthy during lockdown.
How diet can affect your mental and cognitive wellbeing
Staying at home for weeks on end could mean many of us are becoming more familiar with our kitchens than ever. That said, the lockdown – compounded with panic buying and low stock – has also brought with it difficulties in finding ingredients. It may be the perfect time to examine your diet to ensure you’re getting the best nutritional value from the food you do manage to obtain.
For brain health, Dr Judy Rocher (a registered nutritional therapist and naturopath at the London Clinic of Nutrition) recommends a low-sodium Mediterranean diet as it provides “a high level of phytonutrients and antioxidants”. The diet consists of fruits and vegetables, olive oil, nuts, beans, cereal grains, red wine and dark chocolate. With research suggesting that a Mediterranean diet may lower stress levels, improve memory function and reduce the risk of suffering cognitive decline, dementia and depression, it may be the most efficient diet in these trying times.
Rocher also recommends healthy fats that can prevent deterioration of the brain and help absorb fat-soluble vitamins such as Vitamin A, D, E and K. This includes coconut oil, omega-3 fatty acids found in salmon, sardines, herring and mackerel, and lecithin found in egg yolks, liver, soya beans and hemp seeds.
Visit the Mental Health Training guide for more insights on brain health.