Top mental fitness tips

Posted on 14 September 2016

Dr Peter Haug, a neurologist at Mediclinic Milnerton highlights four key complementary tools for mental fitness: physical exercise, mental exercise, sunlight and sleep. Here’s how to strengthen your brain and improve your mental agility.

Literally exercise your way to mental fitness

‘A number of studies show that children who do sport fare better academically as well,’ says Dr Haug. ‘It’s the same for adults: if you stay physically active you’ll boost your mental fitness too becayse there are a number of benefits we get from physical exercise,’ Dr Haug explains. ‘There’s increased oxygen uptake, together with the release of hormones like endorphins, testosterone, growth hormones and so on – all of which contribute to cognitive function and memory.’

He warns that stress is one of the major barriers to memory retention. ‘Many people battle with depression and anxiety, which can also interfere with their cognitive function.’ His advice? Get 20 to 30 minutes of exercise a day – even if it’s just stretching and basic movement  – which will also help to combat low moods.

Mental exercises

While it’s not technically an accurate analogy, your brain can be compared to a muscle in many other ways. ‘If you regularly use your mental capacity, you’ll strengthen your neural connections,’ Dr Haug explains. ‘What I usually tell patients is that when it comes to mental capacity, you either use it or lose it.’ So use your brain – often, and in challenging ways.

‘You need to engage your mind,’ says Dr Haug. ‘And whatever you do, make sure it’s fun as well. Don’t do the exercise just for the sake of it. Yes, it would help you to learn the first five pages of the Tokyo telephone directory – and there might even be some benefit to it. But that’s not going to be fun.’ He compares it to choosing between running indoors on a treadmill or going for a run in the mountains, where you’re surrounded by greenery and beautiful views. ‘Both help to keep you fit,’ he says, ‘but one is more enjoyable than the other!’

Sunlight improves brain function

‘Something else that has been shown to have a benefit is light exposure,’ says Dr Haug. ‘We spend far too much time indoors – going from our homes to our cars to our offices and then back again.’ There’s a link to vitamin D exposure: clinical studies have found an association between low vitamin D levels, cognitive impairment, and an increased risk of developing degenerative neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

‘Vitamin D2 needs to be converted to the more active vitamin D3,’ Dr Haug explains, ‘and that requires sunlight exposure converted through the skin. You need an average of at least 30 minutes of outdoor light exposure on a daily basis to get the benefits.’

Good sleeping habits help too

Lastly, says Dr Haug: ‘Get good sleep.’ Sleep quality is important for cognitive function – as anybody who’s tried to write a test the day after cramming all night could tell you. But there’s another side to it as well.

‘If you’re not fresh, you will experience related pains such as headaches and backaches, which will affect your ability to concentrate,’ says Dr Haug. Tying these good lifestyle habits together he suggests daily exercise as a way to promote better sleep at night.

Published in Exercise

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