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It seems people are always looking for the best way to lose weight, slim down and tone up. But what about focusing our attention on pumping up the three pounds that matter most--the brain? If you approach brain improvement with the same enthusiasm as fitting into that bathing suit for summer, you can improve your memory, reduce stress and think more clearly. Research using MRI scans of the human brain tells us that this amazing organ never stops working or changing, a trait known as neuro-plasticity. It can be fine-tuned to do more for us when we want it to—research tells us that, also. So forget Atkins, South Beach, and Cabbage Soup and pump up your amygdala, hippocampus and prefrontal cortex instead.
Here are four things that will can you make those three important pounds a priority. And coincidentally, everything you do to please your brain is good for your body, too.
1. Say om.
Studies performed at Harvard and Massachusetts General Hospital show that regular yoga and meditation practice increase cortical thickness in as little as eight weeks, ultimately improving cognitive functioning and emotional processing. Yoga and meditation also particularly affected three other areas of the brain: the hippocampus, an area of the brain associated with memory, which matched up with personal reports of decreased stress; parts of the insular cortex involved in sensory awareness, which makes sense since many types of meditation are focused on improving sensory awareness and finally, the prefrontal cortex which is associated with, among other things, attention and self judgment which means thinking more accurately about yourself is possible.
2. Make room on your grocery list for at least three brain-friendly foods.
Experts recommend a 4:1, omega-6-to-omega-3 fatty acids ratio for optimal brain function. One way to achieve this balance is to eat a few servings a week of cold water fish such as salmon and mackerel or foods fortified with fatty acids. There is also good evidence that many fruits and vegetables enrich memory and learning, and may help keep the brain young. Cherries, berries, apples, plums and green leafy vegetables top the list of edible brain boosters.
3. Give your brain plenty of rest.
Getting an average of eight hours of sleep a night is vital for optimal brain function. A rested brain ensures balanced and coordinated communication between the prefrontal cortex, the amygdala, and other emotion-related centers which, when not in harmony, could lead to upset feelings and misperceptions of yourself or others. If you’ve ever gone even one night without a full forty winks, you know how hard it is to think or function.
4. Take your brain for an oxygen run—or some other favorite cardio activity.
The one activity that has been shown in study after study to preserve the youthful nimbleness of the brain is exercise. Among the many other benefits, regular workouts can increase the capacity of capillaries serving the brain so there is better blood flow and oxygen uptake all of the time, not just when you’re working up a sweat. Research suggests that 30 minutes of moderate physical activity, three times a week, works pretty well for boosting and preserving brain power.
If you’re interested in learning more about your brain and how you can optimize it to achieve success, check out my brand new book, The Winner’s Brain. It’s written with another Harvard-trained brain expert Mark Fenske, as well as fitness expert Liz Neporent. We use cutting-edge neuroscience to show how you can "train" your brain to perform at a higher level—to be successful, however you define success. Learn how stars like Whoopi Goldberg, Laura Linney and Olympian Kerri Strug and more than 40 other successful people use their brains to get what they want out of life.