Your Brain Needs Your Heart Needs Your Mind
There has been a lot of research that connects the healthy function of your heart with the healthy functioning of your brain. Today I want to talk about how you can use that knowledge to improve the health of your heart and your brain.
In Pulmonary Function as a Cause of Cognitive Aging, Charles Emory of Ohio State University reminds us that heart function predicts long-term cognitive function but then shows in this study that changes in heart function lead to changes in fluid cognitive functioning – involving psychomotor speed and spatial abilities (but not crystallized cognitive functioning – memory).
There are also many studies that show how exercise can improve on these fluid functions of the brain (but not memory function). This study brings it more into focus around the health of your heart in particular.
Exercise is one of the most effective psychological interventions there is. It helps with anxiety, sleep troubles. For depression, it is more effective than therapy or medication. In part this is because depression is largely a result of feeling helpless, and being physical helps you feel that you are doing something. But the inherent benefit of exercise also plays a role.
Now we know more directly how the benefits of exercise on your heart will also benefit your thinking ability as well, and I encourage you to make getting physical exercise a high priority in your life.
There is another dimension to healthy heart functioning that is not discussed in this study. A happier life has a very powerful effect on the health of your heart. A person who is more optimistic, with a higher ratio of positive to negative emotional experience, who doesn't hold grudges and has a lower level of hostility (practicing forgiveness, or at least letting go of the burden of a grudge) will have a healthier heart, as well.
Optimism, positive emotions and forgiveness are all things that can be learned, practiced and developed into habits. They are at the core of a happier life and, once learned, they can also make it easier to find the motivation to exercise and eat healthier, which can also help your heart.
Positive relationships are also important to the health of your heart and can improve your overall health and longevity even more than diet and exercise. There are skills and habits that you can learn that can help you to have better relationships, too.
This may sound simple: "Just be happier and have better relationships, and then your heart will be healthier and your thinking will be clearer." But, of course, learning and practicing new skills until they are habits is a process that takes a decision, willpower and follow-through. Easier said than done.
The work that I do with my coaching clients involves teaching these skills and then helping clients take the steps to follow through with the new practices until they become firmly established as habits. It is impossible to achieve new habits without consciously, actively taking the steps to achieve them.
People have often gone to therapists or gurus or motivational speaking events in order to get inspired to change. That's fine for the very first step: getting a different perspective that motivates you to change. But beyond that, without doing the consistent mental and behavioral work that is necessary, the new habits that you want to establish will not just magically appear. You have to make them happen.
Sometimes it's not possible to do this on your own. Just as an athlete needs a coach to challenge and create a structure for the athlete to excel, a life coach serves to challenge a person and create a structure for identifying personal goals, and then stick to a course of practice that will get you there.
The project here is to create new neural pathways in your brain that will allow you to incorporate the new behaviors over time to the point where you don't have to consciously think about them (at least not very much). This is like laying down a new hiking trail in the woods. It takes time and repetition, and pretty soon the old trail gets overgrown, and the new trail becomes the attractive pathway.
To get back to one's heart and brain, we now know that healthier heart functioning will lead to certain important elements of healthier brain functioning. Exercise will benefit this but so will practicing many of the behaviors and much of the thinking that I write, speak and teach about regarding living a genuinely happier life.
Developing these practices into habits requires laying down new neural pathways in your brain, which is done through directing your thoughts and actions. How do you do this? With your mind.
Your brain is not your mind. Your brain is integral to your mind; your mind and brain work together. But your brain involves more of an automatic, passive processing of information while your mind is what allows you to direct and focus the activity of your brain toward one thing or another.
So what I am advocating here is that you use your mind to improve the health of your heart, which will improve the functioning of your brain.
It's easy to get caught up in the crisis of the day or the priorities that you have already established in other directions, to the point where you just can't see where exercise or developing new habits is worth it. But step back from the trees for a moment and see the forest of your life. A healthier, happier life will also probably be a longer and more effective life.
Taking the time now to use your mind to improve your health and happiness is a long-term investment in your time and energy. Just as it's easy on a given day to get caught up in answering emails and miss the longer term project at work, it's easy to get so involved in your existing habits and priorities that you can't see how they are affecting you over the course of several years.
Take five minutes and look at your habits as they are right now, and project how they will affect you over the next five years, or ten years, if you maintain them exactly as they are today. If you like where they are taking you, that's fantastic; keep at them. If you can see trouble ahead in the next several years if you maintain your habits just as they are, then make a point to spend some time to take a closer look at what you want to be doing over time.
Your mind, your heart, and your brain will be better for it; and you will look back several years from now and thank yourself for having done this.
Joel F. Wade, Ph.D. is a Life Coach who works with people around the world via phone and e-mail. He can be reached for life coaching service at email@example.com or through his website, www.drjoelwade.com. E-mail today to arrange a free 20-30 minute phone call and see whether coaching can help you to make the changes you want and reach the goals you aspire to. Joel is the author of Mastering Happiness and A Pocket Guide to Mastering Happiness.
"A highly skilled clinician, trained in a variety of psychological disciplines, Joel Wade is a man of immense sensitivity and compassion who has a wide repertoire of problem-solving strategies to bring to the practice of Coaching." ~ Nathaniel Branden, Ph.D., author of The Art of Living Consciously.