You know that exercise is good for your brain and maybe you know that meditation is the best exercise for your brain, but still you don’t want to do it. I totally get that – not everyone has the time or the desire to sit and meditate.
So here’s the good news, there are other ways to exercise your brain. And let me be clear you do need to exercise your brain. Every 4 seconds someone on this planet is diagnosed with dementia – don’t wait until it’s too late.
I’ve put together a list of my Top 10 favorite one minute exercises you can do throughout the day to strengthen your brain so it becomes sharper, stronger, more focused, creative and happier.
I’ve said this before in many posts, and I’ll say it again – neurons that fire together wire together. The more you can get your brain into a balanced state by getting certain neurons to fire – then those neurons will start to wire together making it easier for your brain to stay in a balanced state.
Just like the muscles of your body – the more you work them out the stronger you get. As you keep working out your brain, more and more neurons start wiring together giving you the best brain possible.
You don’t have to do all of the exercises but you need to do some of them. So pick out your favorites and change them up from time to time (your brain LOVES variety). Grab your head band and leg-warmers and let’s get going with some neurobics!
Take a moment (woops I mean a minute) to reflect on what you have: good friends, family, career/job, a roof over your head, a car to get you where you need to go, good health, a subscription to the ZenSmarts newsletter 🙂 … Develop some genuine appreciation for everything you have. Half of the planet lives on less than $2 a day – you have A LOT to be grateful for.
You can also think about something a friend did for you recently that was really kind, and silently give thanks for their kindness. Continue thinking back in your past for other kind deeds people have done for you and generate some heartfelt gratitude.
This exercise causes an increase of activity in the reward center of your brain, releasing dopamine – which makes you feel good by giving you energy, motivation and focus.
2. Deep Abdominal Breathing
Breathing through your nose take some long deep breaths, really expanding your abdomen on the inhales and contracting on the exhales. The abdominal movement activates the vagus nerve which in turn activates the Parasympathetic Nervous System – the opposite of the fight-or-flight response.
This exercise benefits your brain by decreasing stress hormones, which were not meant to remain elevated for extended periods of time. Either you got away from the tiger or you got eaten but one way or another it was meant to be over quickly. Elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol cause your hippocampus (responsible for learning and converting short-term memories into long-term memories) to SHRINK!
Deep abdominal breathing brings you back into the present moment and your brain back into balance (and I guess technically I’ve just snuck a mini-meditation in here – but come on it’s one minute!). An additional benefit is increased oxygen to the brain, which helps you to think more clearly and remain alert.
3. Listen to Music
Grab your phone (and if you don’t have music on your phone, download the Pandora app for free), put on your headset and groove along to your favorite tunes. We love listening to music because it also increases dopamine, giving us more motivation, creativity, focus and energy. This has got to be one of the easiest ways to make your brain happy – you don’t even have to stop working.
If you work at home no problem – if you work in an open floor office plan, this exercise might make you look a little crazy. But not to fear, there is always a way.
Grab your phone and headset and use the handicap bathroom – I know, technically a small violation but you need some room for your arms and legs to move freely.
This brain exercise has it all and is one of my personal favorites (I just did a little dance right now to give me the energy to keep writing this post).
Dancing helps the body release any tension built up from stress, increases oxygen intake, increases dopamine and endorphins! This brain exercise is a quadruple threat!
5. Heart-Centered Practice
Close your eyes and listen and feel the sound of your beating heart. Take deep breaths – 4-5 second counts on the inhale and exhale as you imagine you are “breathing through your heart” (of course, you’re not – you can only breath through your lungs, but just imagine you are).
By placing your attention on your heart you increase activity in the insular cortex, which has many functions, one of which is increasing self-awareness – becoming aware of how you’re feeling at this moment. So often we are caught up in the drama of our emotions we don’t even realize what’s happening. This helps us to take a step back from our emotions.
The more you do this the stronger your insular cortex becomes and the better you are at regulating your emotions and tuning into the emotions of others (increasing compassion and empathy).
6. Talk Nicely to Yourself
So much of the time we aren’t even aware of the dialog we are having in our head. The things we are saying to ourselves, that are most often making things worse for us than better.
Take one minute, close your eyes and talk nicely to yourself. You can use phrases like:
I wish for myself to be happy.
I wish for myself to always be kind.
I wish for myself to always be patient.
I wish for myself to feel loved.
I wish for myself to be peaceful.
When we’re stressed we just can’t help ourselves – we start to get kind of mean. Even if we think well I’m mad at someone else – really you’re causing yourself more pain; activating your overly emotional amygdalae and reducing activity in your prefrontal cortex.
Thinking in and of itself is not bad. But the kind of thoughts we have do tend to be quite formal and end up getting us stressed out and anxious.
So take a moment to send yourself some thoughts of goodwill and kindness and see how you feel.
Take one minute and write down how you’re feeling.
The thoughts in your head have a way of getting completely irrational and crazy, causing your amygdalae to initiate the stress response – all this over an e-mail you misinterpreted.
Writing it out activates your prefrontal cortex which (among many functions) regulates your emotions, thereby quieting down your overly emotional amygdalae. Hmmmm…let’s read that e-mail again, maybe they weren’t attacking me after all – perhaps there is just a miscommunication that needs to be cleared up.
With your rational prefrontal cortex back online, you’re able to handle the situation as an adult instead of a 5-year-old child.
Unfortunately, our prefrontal cortex is somewhat weak and we often let our amygdalae win simply because that’s what we’ve always done (remember habits are created through repetition – let’s break this one!).
This exercise strengthens the prefrontal cortex so you don’t let the amygdalae continue digging you into deeper holes.
A prayer is a thought – they are just words and when we say the right kind of words we change our brain. So don’t worry if you’re not religious. In the traditional sense of the word I’m not religious either and yet, I say the Prayer of St. Francis at least 10 times a day to myself.
Here is my adaptation:
“I wish to be an instrument of peace, compassion and wisdom. Where this is hatred, let me sow love. Where this is injury, pardon. Where there is despair, hope. Where there is doubt, faith. Where there is darkness, light. Where there is sadness, joy. It is my sincerest wish that I don’t so much seek to be consoled, as to console. That I don’t seek to be understood, as to understand. That I don’t seek to be loved, as to love. For it is in giving that we receive. It is in pardoning others that we ourselves are pardoned. It is in seeing the illusion of a separate self that we are free.”
These words, when said with meaning, light up all the parts of your brain to do with compassion, empathy, kindness and love, and decreases activity in the self-centered “me” part of the brain.
9. Leave a Positive Yelp Review
It feels good to help others but sometimes we just don’t have the time to do that much. This is such a quick and easy thing to do – it literally takes one minute to log-on, give them 5 stars and say something nice.
So think of a business you recently visited that you felt did a great job and let them know about it.
This brain exercise reduces stress (I guess this is kind of redundant – they all reduce stress!) and increases activity in the reward center of your brain (go dopamine!) and also increases activity in the septal area of your brain responsible for care-giving. Where would we be as a species if we didn’t look after each other?
I’ve saved the best for last. Who doesn’t love to laugh?
This is where all our Smartphones really can make a positive difference in our lives. So, if you haven’t downloaded Pandora already, do it right away and start building some comedy stations: Jim Gaffigan, Jerry Seinfeld, Ellen Degeneres, John Mulvaney…
If you take a minute every hour or so to do one of these exercises, then you will build a better brain; a brain that makes you happier, more peaceful, calm, focused, creative, sharp, productive and balanced.
And because I care so much about your happiness, my dear reader, I’ll leave you with a sample of one of my favorite comedians, Jim Gaffigan. It is three minutes; however, you will be feeling better after only one minute 🙂