When Sanjay Gupta was a child, his family experienced a traumatic event: Gupta's father was mugged.
A horrible experience, for sure. But years later, when Gupta related the story to a teacher, the teacher related a lesson that Gupta hadn't previously considered:
Bad guys may be able to steal your possessions. But they can't take your mind.
In the decades since, that lesson has resonated as Gupta has gone on to become an accomplished neurosurgeon and serve as CNN's chief medical correspondent. But Gupta also drew another conclusion from his work: While others may not be able to steal your mind, that doesn't mean you'll use your mind to the full.
Enter Gupta's new book, Keep Sharp: Build a Better Brain at Any Age. In it, Gupta shares his learnings and experience on how to make your brain "better, faster, fitter, and sharper."
He does so by sharing the "five pillars of brain health," actions that, according to existing scientific evidence, have been demonstrated as "fundamental to promoting good cognitive function across the lifespan."
Here are the five recommended actions, along with some of Gupta's recommendations on how to implement them in your life.
"Exercise, both aerobic and nonaerobic (strength training), is not only good for the body; it's even better for the brain," writes Gupta. "The connection between physical fitness and brain fitness is clear, direct, and powerful."
TIPS: If you already exercise regularly, says Gupta, try something different. For example, if you jog, try swimming or cycling.
If you aren't exercising, Gupta recommends five to 10 minutes of burst exercise (30 seconds of high-effort movement and 90 seconds of recovery) upon approval from your doctor, with the goal of working up to 20 minutes at least three times a week.
Other simple tips include walking around when speaking on the phone, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, and parking a bit further from the entrance of your destination.
Or, to simplify matters, you could follow the advice Gupta received from friend, actor, and fitness buff Matthew McConaughey: "Just try to break a sweat every day."
Learning something new strengthens the brain, says the research. When you learn something new, you exercise your brain, so to speak. Doing so allows you to take your attention, focus, and concentration to new heights.
TIPS: To help accomplish this, Gupta recommends at least one of the following:
- Read a book that's outside of your professional interest
- Take a painting or cooking class, or check out other adult education courses at your local university or rec center
- Join a writing group
- Try learning a new language
"Relaxing is not solely a physical thing for the body," writes Gupta. "Your brain needs to chill out, too."
Gupta continues: "Scores of well-designed studies ... routinely show that poor sleep can lead to impaired memory and that chronic stress can impair your ability to learn and adapt to new situations."
In other words, one of the most important things you can do for your brain is give it time to rest, or sleep.
TIPS: Gupta recommends getting at least seven hours of sleep per night, "the bare minimum if you want to have normal, healthy functioning physiology from your brain on down."
Also make sure to:
- leave about three hours between dinner and bedtime, which will allow your stomach time to settle
- no more caffeine after 2:00 p.m.
- keep regular sleep habits: try to go to bed and get up at about the same time, every day
- take a warm bath or read a book before going to bed
- keep the bedroom quiet, dark, and electronics free
According to Gupta, recent evidence shows that by consuming certain foods and limiting others, you can help prevent memory and brain decline, protect the brain against sickness, and maximize brain performance.
TIPS: "Eat Sanjay-style," says Gupta: breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a peasant.
Gupta also recommends the SHARP method:
S: Slash the sugar
H: Hydrate smartly
A: Add more omega-3s from natural sources
R: Reduce portions
P: Plan meals ahead
And one more simple tip: "Drink instead of eat," says Gupta.
"We often mistake hunger for thirst," says Gupta. But even moderate dehydration can sap energy and interrupt your brain rhythm.
Research has long indicated that good relationships contribute to healthier and happier lives. But according to Gupta, more recent research tells us that relationships can also improve the brain's plasticity (its ability to change and adapt) and preserve its cognitive abilities.
TIPS: If you're isolated, Gupta says to make it a goal to reconnect with someone you haven't spoken with in a while, or try inviting a friend over for a meal.
You can also try:
- Associating with people older and younger than you
- Volunteer work
- Writing a letter by hand to a younger loved one in the family, passing on a lesson you've learned in your life
- To consider adopting a pet
- If feeling isolated, to seek out professional help
Finally, Gupta recommends tailoring his tips to your own personality and schedule. Focus on doing one simple thing at a time.
You might be surprised at how much you can accomplish in just a short period.
"Never forget that the brain is exceptionally plastic," says Gupta. "It can rewire and reshape itself through your experiences and habits, and a lot of this remolding can be achieved in a mere twelve weeks."
"It's like building any other muscle."