Dr. Lindy Fields is a clinical neuropsychologist, educator, researcher, and writer. She completed a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology at Southern Methodist University, an internship in neuropsychology and rehabilitation psychology at QLI (a premier post acute neurorehab facility), and a two-year fellowship in Clinical Neuropsychology at UT Southwestern Medical Center. In addition to her clinical practice, she is the founder of Brain Doc On Demand, an online company that equips individuals with science-based insights to improve brain health and wellbeing via online courses and speaking engagements.
Image by ALTO IMAGES / Stocksy
September 26, 2023
It’s that time of year again. Fall is a season of shifting schedules, fresh routines, and renewed responsibilities. It’s also super busy, so you might be surprised to learn that it’s actually a great time to revisit your own self-care and well-being habits.
Psychological science research shows that we actually are better at creating new habits during “fresh starts,” such as the start of the new year, after a birthday, at the beginning of the semester, when starting a new job, and even at the beginning of the month or the week.
So, though back-to-school time can be stressful, it can also be the “fresh start” we have been waiting for to level up our brain health. Thankfully, many of the strategies that help keep your brain healthy are also powerful mood boosters and stress-reducers (and, yes, they can be incorporated into even the busiest of lifestyles).
As a brain doctor and busy working mom, here are just a few of my favorite science-backed strategies I use each day to make my brain healthier and happier:
The CDC recommends that adults get at least 150 minutes6 of moderate physical activity weekly. Moderate-intensity activities increase your heart rate and breathing rate but aren’t intense enough to affect your ability to engage in conversation (though singing may be more of a challenge!). Think: brisk walks, chasing the kids around the yard, or taking a family bike ride.
Up for more of a challenge, or want to be more efficient with your time? Introduce more vigorous activities likr running, skating, and exercises that make you work so hard that carrying on a conversation is out of the question.
Don’t have time for a 30-minute sweat session? Break it down. Try doing mini-exercise sessions (say, 10 minutes a few times a day) or pairing exercise with other activities (a walking meeting, taking a phone call while on the stationary bike) to fit movement into your busy schedule.
And if you aren’t able to get in your workouts one week, don’t sweat it. Some movement is better than none! Do what you can, and choose activities you actually enjoy doing.
What this looks like for me
I love to start my day off with a morning jog, take a lunchtime walk outside or an evening walk with the dog, or play a game of soccer with my toddler in the yard.
Bonus: social activities can also be brain-boosting in that they engage parts of the brain in charge of understanding social cues, regulating emotions, and engaging in conversations. Plus, making any activity more social (even exercise) may even make it more enjoyable!
What this looks like for me
I try to schedule regular video calls with out-of-town friends and family. For friends and family who are closer, I set up coffee dates, walks in nature, or sports games/ practice viewings!
Keeping your mind active with cognitively stimulating activities is important for brain health. Whether reading, taking up a hobby, or learning about something new, keeping your brain engaged can help keep your mind sharp7. By choosing cognitive activities that bring you joy, you can also reap some stress-reducing and mood-boosting effects.
And there are so many enjoyable activities that wil flex your brain muscles. Anything that keeps you thinking and using cognitive skills, such as memory, attention, language, spatial abilities, or problem-solving counts. So, feel free to get creative with it! Here are a few ideas to get you started.
What this looks like for me:
I try to listen to educational podcasts while exercising, watch TED talks over lunch, and set aside time to binge-read the latest book club pick.
What I avoid for the sake of my brain
So, we know what to do to build a healthier (and happier) brain—but what about what not to do? Here are a few things I try to avoid when working to improve my brain-healthy lifestyle:
Saying “yes” to everything
These days, the temptation to say “yes” to too much and overextend ourselves is real. I try to avoid saying “yes” to anything automatically. Instead, I pause and consider requests (when possible!) before taking on extra commitments.
When we take on too much—juggling everything for everyone—our self-care is often the first ball that gets dropped. I personally know that when I get too busy, my stress levels go up and my exercise minutes go down. I try to remember that by avoiding taking on too much, I am prioritizing my health and happiness, which helps me show up for myself and those I care about.
It is all too tempting to squeeze in unhealthy quick meals on the go, sandwiched between activities and practices. I try to avoid this temptation by planning healthy make-ahead meals for the week. And when the need for a quick meal arises with no plan in place (because, hey, it happens!), I try to choose heart-healthy and brain-healthy options, such as those that align with the MIND diet.
Getting fewer than 6 hours of sleep
Staying up too late or waking up too early to “get everything done” (it never all gets done, does it?) is almost never worth it. I try to get 7-8 hours of sleep each night (definitely more than 6) to feel my best. By protecting my sleep, I know I am helping to keep my mind sharper in the short term and more resilient in the long term, while also boosting my mood and energy levels.
Ignoring negative emotions and stress
It’s easy to ignore the warning signs of stress and emotional burnout, pushing through them in the hopes they’ll go away if we don’t focus on them. However, ignoring stress only leads to bigger problems over time. By stopping and addressing emotions and stress when they arise, we can better cope with them before they run amok. An added bonus? The better we get at recognizing our emotions and stress, the more efficient our brain gets at working through them!
Incorporating brain-healthy habits into a busy lifestyle takes planning and creativity, but it doesn’t have to be daunting. Psychological research shows us that the transition of summer to fall is an ideal time to start incorporating healthy habits into your day, capitalizing on the fresh start effect. So, what new routines will you start to protect your brain health this season?