Brain battery running low? Here's how to power it up

When we set health goals to strengthen our bodies, boosting brainpower typically doesn’t make the list. But the brain is deeply integrated in how well the body performs.

It impacts memory retention, attention span, productivity, creativity, how motivated we are to make lifestyle changes, how healthy we feel, and can help reduce the onset of diseases like dementia.

So, what can we do to improve our brain’s power? At EXOS we approach health and performance through four pillars — mindset, nutrition, movement, and recovery. With a little planning and practice, these pillars can be incorporated regularly into any daily schedule to collectively help boost your brainpower. Try it for yourself with these eight tips.

1. Soak up the morning light.

Remember when your mom wanted you to get up and greet the day? Turns out she was right. Early morning light has positive effects on mood and helps regulate circadian rhythm and sleep quality, which research shows are essential for optimal brain functionality.

Natural light also helps you manufacture vitamin D in your skin, which reduces the risk of cognitive impairment and dementia. Open your curtains immediately upon waking, eat your breakfast by a window, or get out into the sun during the day by breaking from your screen to take a short mid-morning walk.

Heading to the office? Get the whole team onboard (socially distanced of course) by swapping a conference room meeting for an outdoor walking meeting. Or take your next conference call on the phone instead of videoing in. 

Natural light also helps you manufacture vitamin D in your skin, which reduces the risk of cognitive impairment and dementia.  

2. Get your mind right with affirmations.

Affirmations are positive statements that help crush self-sabotaging and negative thoughts. A 2014 study in the Annual Review of Psychology found that incorporating these statements into your day can improve education, health, and relationship outcomes — sometimes for months or even years.

“Affirmations help you focus on what’s coming next and set you up for a successful day,” says Tiffany Grimm, director of recovery at EXOS.

Here’s how to sprinkle them throughout your day during transitions.

  • Before getting out of bed in the morning, set an intention for your day, such as, “I’m strong and resilient and can handle every situation.”
  • Before work, write down three accomplishable tasks and set steps to do it.
  • End your workday with one thing you’re grateful for to help transition from your professional self into your personal life.

3. Go for that H2O.

Dehydration of as little as 2% has been shown to decrease cognitive function, short-term memory, concentration, and attention span. To combat dehydration, Noel Barrilleaux, a performance dietitian at EXOS, recommends drinking one half to one ounce of water or hydrating beverage per pound of body weight daily.

It might sound like a lot, but you can set yourself up for success if you start first thing in the morning. Keep a full glass of water on your nightstand and drink it immediately after waking up, when your body is most dehydrated. And carry a water bottle with you throughout the day. A reusable water bottle becomes a physical reminder to drink more and can help you reduce your single-use plastics.

4. Mix up your workouts.

Doing just 20 to 30 minutes of low-intensity exercise daily has a significant effect on hippocampal function, which increases ability to store long-term memories and improves emotional regulation. But if you’re in a workout rut, you might feel like another mindless workout will be totally brain-numbing.

Research shows that adding variety to your workouts, for example, biking one day and running another, or alternating the intensity, could provide extra physical and mental stimulation. 

“Your brain is ultimately a problem solver,” says Tristan Rice, a performance specialist at EXOS. Having variation in your workouts is challenging the brain to solve problems differently, he explains.

5. Take a nap or a restorative break.

Our natural circadian rhythms lend to a period of sleepiness in the early to mid-afternoon. Instead of pouring another cup of coffee, Rice suggests letting your body fall asleep for a short period of time, which could be as beneficial to your brain as a full night’s sleep. One NASA study found that even a 26-minute nap improved alertness in participants by 54% for the rest of the day and improved job function by 34%, compared to those who didn’t nap.

If you’re working at home, set a meeting on your calendar to block out time for your nap when you know that you usually get sleepy, and don’t forget to set an alarm. If you work at the office it might be trickier to fit in a nap. Be sure to take your work culture into account, and if it won’t be an issue try a quiet, private place like your car. 

If a nap isn’t realistic for your workplace, don’t waste every break mindlessly in the breakroom. Walk outside, take a stretch break, grab a glass of water and stand in the sunshine or fresh air, or get out of your workspace and do a focused breathing tempo for 2 minutes.

Play reduces stress hormones and triggers release of endorphins, making you happier and engaged in life   

6. Mix up your food selection.

“Eating a variety of foods increases the variety of nutrients you take in, which can help support brain tissue and protect cell membranes,” says Barrilleaux.

Look for foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which are found in fatty fish and certain nuts and seeds like walnuts, pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds, and ground flax seeds. Omega-3s have been linked to greater grey matter volume in the brain, which is responsible for muscle control and sensory perception. Pair omega-3s with a variety of colorful vegetables and berries. 

Eat slow-digesting carbs, such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and beans, which provide a steady flow of energy to the brain throughout the day, advises Barrilleaux.

Not sure how to incorporate these into your meal plan? Try this:

  • Breakfast: Eat oatmeal topped with walnuts, chia seeds, and ground flaxseed.
  • Lunch: Opt for a spinach salad topped with shredded carrots, tomatoes, purple onions, yellow bell peppers, grilled chicken, avocado, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar.
  • Snack: Try low-fat yogurt topped with blackberries or cut veggies and hummus.
  • Dinner: Whip up broiled salmon with sweet potato and roasted Brussels sprouts.

7. Treat your inner child with play.

Engaging in board games, cooking a new recipe, playing sports, swimming with friends, or solving sudoku puzzles has been shown to boost productivity and creativity and improve problem-solving skills, both in the professional and personal settings.

“Play also reduces stress hormones and triggers release of endorphins, making you happier and engaged in life,” says Grimm. Fit in some play during prolonged work sessions.

One study from the University of Chicago at Urbana-Champaign showed that breaking from a singular task for a brief time can improve focus upon return. Some people like to use little fidget toys on their desk or take a break to shoot a few hoops with your family or a co-worker.

8. Set up an optimal sleep environment.

“Sleep is absolutely essential for brain function, including how nerve cells communicate,” says Barrilleaux. Try these tips to get your brain ready for restorative sleep, especially if your work environment and your sleep environment are sharing the same space

  • Before bed, eat tart cherries or cherry juice, pineapple, or walnuts, which are natural sources of melatonin.
  • Shut your screens down 45 to 60 minutes before getting into bed.
  • In the shower, alternate hot and cold water temperatures. This helps increase blood circulation, replaces waste in your body with fresh oxygenated blood, and relaxes muscles, setting your brain up for a deeper sleep.
  • Making your bedroom as dark as possible and setting the temperature between 65 and 72 degrees will lend to a better night’s rest, research shows.

Looking for other ways to stay at your peak? Check out these seven stress-busting foods.

About the Author

Lauren Katims

Lauren Katims is a Northern California-based writer and editor.

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