You Think Busy Means Fit
You may be incredibly busy, but if you're stuck at a desk or behind the wheel of a car most of the day, you won't be engaged in the kind of physical activity your mind needs. To stay sharp, you need to keep moving. Among other things, exercise increases production of a substance called brain-derived neurotrophic factor that helps the brain rewire itself and slows formation of plaques that accompany Alzheimer's disease. Start exercising, and you could feel sharper and more able to focus within a month. "It takes a few weeks to get into it," says Middleton, "but then positive changes happen quickly."
Shoot for 30 minutes of cardiovascular activity three to five times a week.
"If you can build to an hour, that's great," says Middleton, and weight training also seems to improve brain function.
Middleton and her colleagues found in a recent study that being active throughout the day may do more to help keep your mind sharp as effectively as purposeful exercising.
"Anything that contributes to movement matters — doing chores, gardening, getting out of your chair to stretch," she says.
You Have Anxiety Overload
Your boss gave you a bad evaluation and you know she has to cut staff, the IRS wants to audit your taxes, and your doctor wants to order another round of tests. And you wonder why you can't concentrate? Of course you can't. That's how the brain responds to real or imagined threat. We become hyper-alert to our surroundings ("Shhh! What's that?"), but ask us to focus on a task or follow a conversation, and forget it.
If you can't concentrate because you're too busy worrying, stop and do something fun to clear your head, says Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, PhD, professor and chair in the department of psychology at Yale. Go for a walk, try a new recipe, play with the dog. Now think of one small thing you can do to address your worry and do it, even if it's just talking to a friend. Taking small, positive actions reduces the psychological stress that destroys concentration and bathes the brain in harmful stress hormones.
Taking action can also stimulate healthier brain function. A 2009 study found that when people suffering from depression were helped to take small steps toward re-engaging in life, not only did they start feeling better but areas of their brain associated with motivation and pleasure that had been under-active revved back up.
"And this is without medicine," says lead author Gabriel S. Dichter, assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill School of Medicine. "Just changing behavior jump-started the brain to function in a healthier way."
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