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Brain Training: Classroom Edition


WHEN MOST PEOPLE consider the concept of brain training to improve learning, they tend to think of those online game programs or puzzles that are purported to give the brain a "workout" by practicing memory and problem solving skills to sharpen the mind. Others consider more advanced techniques aimed at optimizing brainwave activity through neurofeedback or stimulation therapies. Although the games can be fun, there's little research to support their true efficacy in training the brain for improved success in learning. And the advanced technologies can prove costly. I'm definitely following the medical literature on the use of computer, smartpone and other technologies to train the brain, even contributing to the general fund of knowledge on this topic through research. But the reality is that you really don't need an Internet subscription or expensive subscriptions and programs to help you or your child train the brain for better classroom success and improved learning. In fact, nailing just four habits can help significantly improve performance over time.

1. Sleep. Americans, with our smartphones never out of reach and constant attempts at multi-tasking, are getting less and less of the quality and quantity of sleep we need to simply function – let alone get better at anything. Here's the deal: Sleep is as essential to overall health and brain performance as food and water. Without enough of it, your brain cannot form or maintain the pathways that allow learning to happen. A lack of quality sleep also makes it harder to respond quickly to or concentrate on anything,and some research suggests it can even cut learning ability by nearly 40 percent.

Contrary to popular belief, sleep does not shut your brain down for the eight or so hours you're snoozing. Recently published research reveals that the physiologic mechanisms that occur during sleep actually act as a cleaning crew would to help remove toxins in the brain that accumulated while you were awake. Sleep is the ultimate cobweb sweeper. Getting enough sleep each night (seven to eight hours for most adults) helps strengthen memories and build connections in the brain allowing storage of different pieces of information.

2. Exercise. Beyond the benefits of physical health and appearance, exercise is essential in the protection of memory and thinking skills. Think of it as a bodyguard for your brain function. As it turns out, recent research suggests that aerobic exercise – the heart-pumping, sweat-inducing kind – increases hippocampus size, which is the area of the brain involved in learning and verbal memory skills. From a chemical perspective, exercise stimulates the release of natural growth factors in the brain that affect the health of brain cells, new blood vessel growth in the brain and the increase and survival of new brain cells. And those are just the direct benefits. Indirectly, exercise is credited by many research scientists with improvement in overall mood and sleep quality, plus reduction in stress and anxiety. If you're new to an exercise routine, make sure to talk to your doctor before you begin, then you can simply start with 20 to 30 minutes of brisk walking most days a week. Gradually increase duration and/or intensity as tolerated (and approved by your physician). Your brain will be better for it.

3. Mindfulness meditation. Now, before you write this off as nonsense, a considerable amount of recent neurological research has turned up evidence that mindfulness meditation can help improve focus and enhance attention (essential for doing well in school) as well as quiet the autonomic nervous system (the part of the nervous system responsible for bodily functions you don't consciously direct – like breathing, heartbeat and digestion). So what is mindfulness, exactly? It's the ability to hold your attention to something. The goal is to be continuously attuned to the present moment. Building mindfulness abilities in conjunction with awareness (a kind of "sheriff" of your thoughts reminding you of when you're successful vs. when you've drifted into thoughts about e-mail, tomorrow's tasks or yesterday's worries) is a powerful way of training the brain. Techniques can involve relaxation, practiced breathing and mental imagery. Over the last 20 years, neurological research suggests that mindfulness meditation is beneficial to physical, mental and cognitive health. How to get started? There are a variety of ways, but simply spending a few quiet minutes each day looking inward and focusing on mindfulness can offer tremendous benefits. There are free online sites and smartphone apps that can help start a meditation program with guided meditations. Search "mindfulness meditation" to find a variety of ways to go about it. At least one will likely suit you.

4. Regulate dietary intake. You could've guessed this one, right? That old adage "you are what you eat" is true. Food is fuel for your body and your brain. And as you likely know, not every food you put in is treated equally or used efficiently by your body. Especially in developing children, without proper nutrition, the ability of the brain to learn new skills or tasks decreases. And with older adults, science tells us that diets too heavily loaded with processed foods can actually contribute to mental decline, depression and memory loss over time. Most people can look at their diet and identify at least a few areas that are in need of improvement. Do you rely to heavily on convenience or fast foods for your daily caloric intake? Take the time to retool your diet with whole, nutritionally dense foods. What does whole foods actually mean? The less processed, the better. If it comes in a box, it's not the best thing for you or your brain. Stick with lean protein sources and significant amounts of vegetables and fruits for the best brain bang for your buck.