Benefits: Find out how your exercise, diet, and sleep habits affect your brain.
So That You Can: Develop a strong body, and in turn a strong mind, which will give you the capacity to develop life-changing habits.
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Are you considering a leap of faith? Or do you want to become your best self right where you are? Chances are pretty good that you won’t be able to take that leap or realize your goals unless you heed the advice in this article. Yes, it’s that important.
It is one of the most basic, and one of the most difficult, things we will ever do in our lives. Our senses and desires try to lead us away from it. Our busy schedules deter us from it. Our peers aren’t often good examples of it. And we encounter a myriad of distractions throughout each day that stand between us and it.
Alright already, what is it? Okay, here goes….in order to energize yourself before taking that leap of faith, or becoming your best self, you must . . . take care of your body!!! I know, it’s so shocking isn’t it? I’m pretty sure no one has ever put these two thoughts together before (she writes with heavy sarcasm).
It’s safe to assume that we all know this to be true. Yet still, day after day, we keep pumping junk into our bodies, sitting around on the couch (while pumping junk into our bodies), and getting barely enough sleep to get by.
We take much better care of our cars than we do our bodies. You wouldn’t put oil in your gas tank and expect your car to get you down the street. You wouldn’t try to roll down the road on a flat tire. You wouldn’t leave your car lights on all night and expect the battery to be its powerful self in the morning.
We expect our bodies to keep up with all of our demands even though we don’t give them what they need. And they better not even think about getting sick on us because that is going to screw up our whole overbooked schedule.
We are all guilty of this on some level, and I am no exception. It’s a struggle we all face every day. So let’s own it, and learn what we can do to ease the struggle.
But How Does This Relate to Taking a Leap of Faith
I know if my body is feeling “off,” my head isn’t going to be in a space of growth. Whether it’s because I just filled my body with an excess amount of fat or sugar or because I didn’t get to bed on time, there is no way I am going to be as productive, creative, patient, or nurturing as I need to be to take on a challenge. And I imagine the same is true for all of us.
Plus, I know all too well, that I don’t deal with my emotions well if my body is lacking what it needs. (Yes, to those who know and love me, I am known as the hangry one.) Again, I imagine the same is true for all of us.
There is no way in the world we are going to be able to deal with all the emotions that come with making a major life change if we’re not giving our bodies what they need.
Do Not Expect Perfection
I think this is what sets us all back and why so many of us fail to take care of ourselves. We expect that if we can follow a specific diet plan or exercise routine for X amount of time, we will wake up one day looking like a supermodel, or we’ll be sporting that six pack we’ve always wanted.
We expect our bodies to reach some level of perfection that is just not attainable for every body type and probably not even desirable at the end of the day.
We also expect ourselves to follow the diet or routine perfectly, and if we slip up one time, we throw in the towel. Well, I already had a donut this morning; this day’s shot. Might as well finish off that pint of ice cream tonight. Or, I’m so tired and already missed my workout yesterday, might as well take today off too.
We expect ourselves to have all the will power in the world from day one, but will power is a habit that is strengthened over time. We need to remind ourselves that one slip up does not erase what we’ve already built. A wall doesn’t fall just because one brick is chipped.
If we’re building our “why” for dieting and exercising around these idealistic expectations, we might be able to meet our short-term goals. However, it is highly unlikely that we will sustain this success for any significant amount of time.
We need to give some real consideration to our “why” and then make sure we define it in terms of a long-term goal. For more tips on defining your “why,” click here.
It's Time to Pump [clap] Your Brain Up
Turns out that exercise isn’t only good for our physical strength and stamina. In fact, it is “. . . the most transformative thing we can do for our brains . . .” according to Wendy Suzuki, a professor of neuroscience.
We’ve heard about the short-term benefits of exercising: a boost in our mood, energy, and attention span. But the lesser known, long-term effects will empower us to take that leap of faith.
Let’s meet our new best friends, the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex. Or, as the kids call them, H-Camp and PFC.
H-Camp is responsible for emotional responses, impulse control, memory, and spatial cognition. In particular, it is responsible for creating new memories, which have a direct effect on our emotions and creative abilities. Damage to H-Camp can lead to stress, anxiety, and depression.
PFC also plays a part in controlling our emotional responses. Specifically, it enables us to focus, organize, and perform complex planning. The ability to ignore external distractions by considering and prioritizing competing thoughts, also a responsibility of PFC. And if all that weren’t enough, PFC plays an instrumental role in personality development.
Back to those long-term effects that will help us take our leap of faith.
- Exercise increases the neurotransmitters in our brains — the chemical messengers necessary for communicating information throughout our bodies. We are going to need as many neurotransmitters zipping through our H-Camps and PFCs as possible when we take that first life-changing step; to keep us focused and help us manage the emotions and impulses we will have to face.
- Exercise improves our attention by stimulating our PFCs. The chemicals that sustain our attention are activated by oxygen. And what gets oxygen flowing through our bodies better than exercise? Exercise = oxygen flow = attention = creativity/planning = the leap.
- Maybe most surprising of all, exercise not only strengthens and grows our biceps and glutes, it actually strengthens and grows our H-Camps and PFCs! When we exercise, we are setting the stage to develop self-discipline and critical thinking. The product of these developments will be the emotional strength and self-assurance needed to face the uncertainty of the leap.
What's Food Got to Do With It?
“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results,” is a quote you may be familiar with. (Some attribute this quote to Einstein, but the jury’s out on that one.) These words seem to sum up our relationship with food.
We feel like crap all day, every day, and we know our bodies need fuel. But, we continue to skip meals, chow down on convenience foods that provide little nutritional value, and dehydrate ourselves.
We keep expecting that one of these days we’ll just wake up feeling better somehow. Or, maybe even worse, we resign ourselves to the idea that we’re getting older and this is how old people are supposed to feel.
And what part of our bodies needs nutrients more than any other? You guessed it. . .our brains.
Introducing . . . Macronutrients
I found an excellent TED-Ed video by Mia Nacamulli entitled “How the food you eat affects your brain.” The rest of this section is based on what I learned from that video.
Our brains are made up of 3 macronutrients — fat, amino acids/protein, and glucose (carbs) — as well as micronutrients.
Most of our brains’ weight is from fat, or lipids.
Some fats are good and some are bad. The good fatty acids we hear about most, Omega-3 and Omega-6, are linked to the maintenance and creation of cell membranes, including brain cells.
Meanwhile, saturated and trans fats, the bad fats, compromise brain health. Studies have shown that they block the good fatty acids from doing their job, which can cause decreased memory, worsened moods, and aggressive behavior. Indulging in these bad fats is not going to support the nurturing environment we’ll need to create in our brains.
Good sources of fatty acids include: nuts, seeds, and fatty fish. Work fatty acids into your diet, but be aware that some of these sources can pack a lot of calories. Eat in moderation.
Amino acids link to form proteins and are the building blocks of growth and development.
In addition, they are the precursors to neurotransmitters — the chemical messengers in our brains. These messengers affect everything from our moods, to our attentiveness, to our sleep patterns, and even our weight.
We’ll need as many neurotransmitters as we can get to take our leap of faith. Which means we need a protein-rich diet. Turns out protein has a higher purpose than just getting our bis and tris ready for the gun show.
Good sources of amino acids/protein include: lean red meat, pork, poultry, seafood, eggs, low-fat dairy, greek yogurt, quinoa, and soy/tofu. Beans, nuts, and seeds also contain amino acids but do not contain all of the essential amino acids.
Carbs are converted into glucose, which then travels into our cells to be used for energy.
Just like fats, not all carbs are created equal. There are 3 types of carbs — starches, sugars, and fiber — but none of these are good or bad in and of themselves.
What we have to watch out for are high glycemic foods. These foods cause a rapid release of glucose followed by a dramatic dip. That sugar buzz and crash we have all experienced.
On the other hand, foods on the low end of the glycemic index are digested and absorbed into the bloodstream slowly, causing a steady rise in blood sugar levels. These foods will give us the sustained energy levels we need to be creative and confident.
High glycemic foods include: refined sugars (candy, cookies, cakes), white breads, potatoes, white rice, and corn chips/pasta.
Low glycemic foods include: whole grain and multigrain breads, oats, sweet potatoes, long-grain and brown rice, legumes (beans), and many fruits and vegetables.
Micronutrients include antioxidants, B vitamins, and trace minerals.
Antioxidants, found in fruits and vegetables, strengthen our brains to fight off free radicals, which destroy brain cells. The B vitamins — B6, B12, and folic acid — help regulate our blood sugar levels to give us sustained energy. Trace minerals — iron, copper, zinc, sodium, etc. — are also fundamental to brain health.
It’s not really surprising that the foods we choose to eat are an essential part of our journey toward that leap of faith. Our brains need the right types of fuel to be in tiptop shape, firing on all cylinders, or we are not going to make it to the jumping off point.
Sleep: The Trip Lever of Your Brain's Toilet
Deep sleep, that elusive creature so few of us ever catch. By the end of our overbooked days, during which we’ve stared at brain-stimulating screens all day, our brains have a difficult time shutting off long enough to reach this state.
Even though we know that sleep is essential to maintaining physical and emotional balance, we’ve come to accept poor sleep, and the resulting state of exhaustion, as normal.
But here’s an odd question, would you go a full day without flushing your toilet? Let it just pile up with waste until nothing else could fit? Doubtful. Yet we let our brains fill with waste without a second thought.
Every cell in our bodies produces waste as a byproduct of energy consumption. Our brains’ intense electrical activities use between 20% – 25% of our bodies’ entire energy supply, which produces — you guessed it — a lot of waste!
Our lymphatic systems are responsible for clearing waste from our cells and dumping the waste into our blood to be disposed of.
Dumping waste from our brains is a little trickier because there aren’t any lymphatic vessels that run to our brains. Instead, the space surrounding our brains fills with cerebrospinal fluid, collects the waste, and dumps it into our blood.
Here’s the rub, this process only occurs in a sleeping brain. Awww snap! All of a sudden you’re picturing your brain filling up with waste, just like that toilet that hasn’t been flushed all day, and you know you need to flush it!
Sleep is not a luxury, it is a necessity, if we expect our brains to function at the level necessary to become our best selves.
You Have to Start Somewhere
Yes, I know; we’re all too busy, too overworked, too far gone, insert additional excuses here. But, just like everything we will ever do in life, there has to be a first step.
That step has to be practiced over and over again until we master it. Then we move on to the next step and the next. Until, miraculously, we are performing an activity we never thought possible.
When we take on too much change at once, we can easily become discouraged. All we’ve done is add more to-do’s to our already lengthy list. Let’s not fall into that trap, or the trap of thinking we will see changes overnight, or even in a month.
Substantial change takes time and daily persistence. I encourage you to have a long-term goal (your “why”), but let’s work toward that goal by focusing on one day at a time.
To that end, I challenge you to pick one new, energizing habit to master. Just one. And do that one thing every day until it becomes part of your lifestyle. Then move on to the next thing.
Are you going to change your diet, exercise routine, or sleep schedule? Which will it be? And what one habit will it be?
Will you commit to working out tomorrow? Commit to eating a protein bar rather than a sugary snack when you get an afternoon craving? Or commit to getting off your devices one hour before you go to sleep tonight?
I would like to share some of the energizing habits I am mastering, in the hopes of inspiring you and giving you some ideas to get started. Check out my post, “How I Energize Myself to Take My Leap of Faith.”
Now it’s your turn — I want to know what habit you are going to master in the comments. Your Circle will be here encouraging you all the way!