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Diet, Exercise and Sleep: Healthy Balance

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We’re all guilty of it: staring at our devices too long into the night, eating poorly, and, perhaps, not being as active as we could. Look, no one says you need to run a 5K every week or eat only fruits and vegetables, but the power of diet, sleep, and exercise and their effect on our productivity and brainpower simply cannot be underestimated. Nowhere is this truer than for young people, who are more overscheduled today than ever before. Within these incredibly busy lives, diet, exercise, and rest are vitally important for success but often fall by the wayside. Below, we’ll explore some of the science behind the importance of the big three (diet, exercise, and sleep) and how they work with the brain. Diet: Your brain is pretty much always “on,” even when you’re sleeping so the fuel you use to run it can have a significant impact on its effectiveness.

Think of it this way: if you fill your car’s gas tank with subpar fuel, it won’t run as effectively and efficiently as it might on premium fuel; your brain is no different. If you fuel it with processed foods, refined sugars, and empty carbohydrates, your brain will be directly and negatively affected. In fact, studies show that diets high in refined sugars can actually impair brain function not to mention worsen symptoms of mood disorders such as depression and anxiety. Remember that old adage “you are what you eat?” Turns out it’s true and it’s vitally important to feed our brains healthy fuel.Exercise: The science doesn’t lie: regular exercise stimulates the growth and health of brain cells. Further, it can improve mood and sleep while reducing stress and anxiety.

According to Dr. Scott McGinnis, a neurologist at Harvard Medical School, “engaging in a program of regular exercise or moderate intensity over six months or a year is associated with an increase in the volume of selected brain regions.” For young folks, whose brains are often tired and overtaxed, the importance of exercise cannot be understated. The great news is that this doesn’t entail an endless and exhausting workout; in fact, a manageable 120 minutes of exercise a week has been shown to improve brain function. To put that into perspective, a week consists of 10,080 minutes, so it is more than possible to fit it in even if you’re super busy. Sleep: Did you ever wonder why some teens sleep so late on the weekends? Maybe it’s because their entire week has been filled to the brim with work, assignments, obligations, practices, and other academic and extracurricular activities.

On Saturday, they can finally rest. Unfortunately, this type of “binge sleeping” is not conducive to healthy brain function. Rather, irregular sleep patterns can result in compromised memory and even poor physical health. According to Dr. Carl Bazil, professor of neurology at Columbia University, “most people need around eight hours of sleep a night and if you’re chronically not getting that sleep you need, your performance is going to deteriorate.” You’d probably be hard-pressed to locate an average kid who got a full eight hours of sleep last night. Not only does a lack of solid sleep affect performance, it can also lead to mood disorders, anxiety, and depression. Sleep should not be seen as a luxury, but rather as essential to brain and body health. So the question is how does a young person incorporate the “big three” into his very busy daily life?

First, making a concerted effort to get rest, exercise, and eat healthily is vital. Making this commitment will yield marked, noticeable results: grades will improve, stamina will increase, and skills will be sharpened. We’ve all heard that the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step and nowhere is this more applicable than here. Starting small will lay the foundation for the development and implementation of lifelong healthy habits. There are very simple ways to begin the practice: for better sleep, try “powering down” devices well before bedtime, skipping naps even if you’re tired, and working out. For healthy eating, try cutting back on sugary drinks, eating breakfast, and staying hydrated. For starting an exercise routine, keep your expectations manageable and realistic, try to make it fun, and celebrate your success. At I achieve Learning, we are experts in all things brain; ask us how we can help you maximize your brain power and stay happy, healthy, and successful.

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