A few years ago, one of my patients in my psychotherapy practice gave me a brick-shaped sign that proclaimed, “You’re only one workout away from a good mood!” I was given the sign in response to my incessant urgings to exercise daily to aid in defeating his depression and anxiety. Most of us are keenly aware of the positive impact that exercise has on our brain functioning. Aerobic exercise gets our heart pumping and our lungs working to send more oxygen-rich blood to our thirsty brains. We know our bodies require exercise and the same is true for our brains.

Cognitive stimulation

A research study in the professional journal Neurology reported that regular brain stimulation held off the arrival of Alzheimer’s disease for five years. That is amazing! The study tracked 1,903 people, average age 80 for up to 22 years; 457 of the study participants developed the disease. The average age of onset for those who did the most brain stimulating activities was 94; the average age of onset for those who did the least was 89.

A short list of brain stimulating activities would include reading, board games, card games, singing, dancing, hobbies, journaling, writing of any type, enrolling in an academic course, learning a new skill. Who knew that simply keeping our minds stimulated, active and challenged could produce such remarkable results?

Of course, there are other research-based interventions to bolster brain health. An elementary one is to be mindful of taking steps to avoid physical injury to our brains. Adhering to the Mediterranean diet or the Dieting Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet are wise. Restful sleep is imperative as is managing stress, socializing with meaningful, stimulating conversations and having a purpose in living.

Social interactions

Spending quality time with friends and family that love you and you love in return is more beneficial and enriching for our brains than brief, casual interactions; yet those are also therapeutic. Current research and earlier research in The Lancet Neurology Journal found that a socially active life in your 50s and 60s predicts a lower risk of developing dementia. Numerous studies report social isolation such as has accompanied our current pandemic and lack of quality social relationships are major risk factors for depression. A study of over 11,000 people published five years ago in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society found that face-to-face conversations were most effective in sealing off depression compared with electronic connecting.

Positive social interactions also impact our physical health in the form of better blood pressure control, a stronger immune system and ultimately a longer life. In a 2019 study published in JAMA Network Open, older adults who strongly believed their life had meaning and purpose, were much less likely to die over a four-year period than their peers who lacked that conviction. Having a philosophy of life manifested in caring for a spouse, volunteering, or other selfless activity, gives us motivation to get out of bed in the morning.

Just do it

Most of us have read countless articles like this one. We are encouraged to overcome unhealthy habits like smoking and multi-tasking while taking on healthy activities, such as exercising regularly, managing our caloric intake, sleep, stress management and social interaction. But like a New Year’s resolution, what can we do to actually implement the healthy habits we wish to acquire? Here is a four step process that I recommend doing for thirty days.

Begin with relaxing for five or more minutes. This step is designed to open our minds to a greater receptivity and commitment to complete the desired change. Use any relaxation method that resonates with you.

Next is visualizing yourself doing the desired healthy habit. Notice the expression on your face. See your total resolve. Notice all the detail, all the colors. Remember a visual rehearsal is the equivalent of actually doing the new activity. Athletes do visual rehearsal to cement their expertise.

Now add to your visualization the typical obstacles you would employ to sabotage your healthy goal. You might use limiting self-talk such as “I’ll never be able to do this!” or “It’s too hard!” or “It takes too long.” The list is endless. Now see yourself overcoming your self-imposed obstacles.

The last step is visualizing yourself being totally, joyfully successful in implementing your healthy goal. You are smiling. Your chest is out. Your chin is up. You reward yourself with positive self-affirmations such as “I’m strong! I’m disciplined! I’m enough! I’m determined! I’m successful.”

“We can’t change the beginning, but we can begin now to change the ending.” 

— C.S. Lewis

Dr. Jim David is a retired psychotherapist in Silver Spring who adheres to positivity in all areas of life. Currently he does personal, spiritual and executive coaching. Visit his website at www.askdrdavidnow.com or email at [email protected].

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Dr. Jim David

Dr. Jim David is a retired psychotherapist in Silver Spring. Currently busy with personal, spiritual and executive coaching.