Lifestyle Changes for Peak Brain Performance

19.09.2019 |

Episode #5 of the course How to boost your studying and test-taking skills by Valeria Shvediuk

Welcome back!

Today, we talk about simple lifestyle choices that you can adopt to support optimal brain function and even increase your fluid intelligence, which we touched upon in the first episode.

“Healthy body, healthy mind”—what’s good for your general health is also good for your brain. Let’s examine key lifestyle areas to see why that is and what quick changes you can do to increase your brainpower.


Food for Thought

Can you eat your way to better test scores? Research does indeed suggest a link between diet and cognitive performance. A Mediterranean diet appears to offer great protective qualities for general brain health [1], but how do you quickly boost your brain’s firepower in just a few weeks before your exam? Eat more healthy fats and fatty acids! Your brain, the fattiest body organ—consisting of nearly 60% fat—will thank you. You can find these in nuts, seeds, avocado, fatty fish, and eggs; add one or two of these products to every breakfast (and don’t skip breakfast, as this meal has been shown to enhance memory in its own right! [2]). Also, consider taking magnesium supplements that support brain functions [3], and regularly monitor vitamin and mineral levels in your blood, as any deficiencies might hurt your brain performance.

If you ever feel thirsty, chances are that you’re dehydrated. Adequate water intake is crucial for your brain [4], so always bring a bottle with you (buy a one-liter reusable bottle, and remember to drink at least two per day).


Rest, Asleep, and Awake

Unlike how it was earlier believed, the brain is not at rest during sleep. Instead, it performs critical functions, like organizing information received during the day and moving it to long-term memory. Essentially, your brain memorizes and rehearses what you’ve learned while you sleep. Sleep deprivation is as dangerous as chemical intoxication [5] and severely impairs your recall [6]. Therefore, the worst thing you can do before an exam is to pull an all-nighter; despite preparing a lot, you may not be able to remember anything during the test.

Awake rest is also important for learning, creativity, and problem-solving. When you let your mind wander without actively focusing, it enters a “diffuse thinking” mode. This is where those “aha!” moments occur and discoveries are made [7]. If you want to benefit from this, build in enough downtime into your study routine!

An added perk of scheduling time for relaxation is relieving stress. High levels of stress hormones are toxic for the brain, and chronic stress diminishes your ability to learn [8]. Prioritizing your wellbeing and avoiding spreading yourself too thin at school or work are great strategies to achieve your desired test results. Test-day stress and anxiety is another big topic, which we’ll cover later in the course.


Move Your Body

Physical exercise makes you healthier and—good news—smarter. It does so through a clever mechanism where the brain releases powerful hormones called BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) when you work out. BDNF improves your brain’s plasticity and neurogenesis, i.e., the brain’s ability to learn. You become better not only at the activity you’re doing but also at learning anything! As it turns out, aerobic exercises and training that requires complex coordination skills (e.g., playing tennis) yield the best cognitive benefits [9]. So, put on those running shoes and get your heart rate up!


Gym for the Brain

You become stronger by exercising just beyond the edge of your physical abilities. The same principle applies to becoming better at solving novel problems (which is a definition of fluid intelligence)—you must solve harder novel problems. To boost neurogenesis and prime your brain for peak performance, introduce more novelty into your life and do usual things the hard way [10]. Change the language on your phone to the one you’re learning, navigate a new city without a GPS, find a new hobby (like pottery or a musical instrument), or calculate a tip in your head—the possibilities are endless!

Daily task: To shake up your neurons, brush your teeth with your non-dominant hand (i.e., left if you’re right-handed) tonight.

See you tomorrow, when we’ll be discussing discipline and procrastination.



Recommended book

Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School by John Medina



[1] Mediterranean Diet Boosts Memory and Keeps Brain Young, Study Finds

[2] Breakfast, Blood Glucose and Memory

[3] Enhancement of Learning and Memory by Elevating Brain Magnesium

[4] Why Your Brain Needs Water

[5] Your Brain on Nitrogen

[6] Sleep after Learning Aids Memory Recall

[7] Why Your Brain Needs More Downtime and Science Says You Should Leave Work at 2 p.m. and Go for a Walk

[8] Chronic Stress Can Damage Brain Structure and Connectivity and Why Your Brain on Stress Fails to Learn Properly

[9] Once and for All: Aerobic Exercise Increases Brain Size

[10] You Can Increase Your Intelligence: Five Ways to Maximize Your Cognitive Potential


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