Mind over matter. We've all heard that, right? Now, new studies are showing that exercise and eating right really is mental. So-called ‘brain training' is proving effective in helping people make smarter food choices, work out more often, and even cut out unhealthy habits like excessive drinking.
We reached out to Lumosity, a company that develops games and programs for brain training, to find out how we can apply the latest breakthroughs in neuroscience to improve cognitive abilities and make healthier lifestyle choices.
Memory games and positive thinking may help to control our impulses to eat unhealthy foods.
Sitting at the computer is not exactly synonymous with exercise. But, according to recent studies, daily ‘brain training' with online programs such as Lumosity's Memory Matrix, can strengthen willpower and promote healthy lifestyle choices. Researchers in Amsterdam found that problem drinkers who followed challenging cognitive training regimens like memory games drank less alcohol than a control group who did only the easiest level of training. One month after the study was completed, the trained participants still had lower drinking rates.
This theory could feasibly be applied to our eating and exercise habits as well. Besides brain-training games, you can also practice positive affirmations.
"Write out your goals and talk to yourself in proactive terms," says Srini Pillay, author of The Science Behind the Law of Attraction (NBG, 2011) and Life Unlocked (Rodale, 2010). "Rather than making sure that you do NOT miss going to the gym or that you do NOT eat an unhealthy snack, tell yourself when you plan to go to the gym and what you will eat when you are hungry, instead of what you will NOT eat."
There is a science behind portion control.
Studies have shown that people with incredible willpower have different brain activity than those with no control, and that "training" the part of the brain that controls willpower can ramp up brain activity. The prefrontal cortex is the area of the brain responsible for the brain processes involved in planning, impulse control, willpower, and abstract thinking. Lumosity reports that brain imaging results of its users have shown increased activity in the prefrontal cortex, which can also contribute to self-control when making healthy diet choices.
Researchers at CalTech performed a study that seems to support this. They found that dieters who were making a conscious effort to eat better in an effort to lose weight, had a different brain response in their prefrontal cortex than non-dieters. The dieters showed increased brain response to health and tastiness, while the non-dieters only responded to tastiness.
If you want to train your brain to choose healthy foods over fattening ones, be specific. "Scientific research shows us that there are two kinds of intentions: ‘goal' intentions which are broad (‘I need to eat better') and ‘implementation' intentions that are more specific (‘I need to only eat meals that I cook myself')," Dr. Pillay says. "When you are too general, the brain is less likely to change its behavior, however, when you are more specific, it has to do less work on its own to help you achieve your goal. This is especially true of weight-loss strategies," he adds.
Physical fitness is mental.
There is also a link between physical exercise and brain fitness. Studies have found that exercise can lead to neurogenesis—the creation of new brain cells—and exercising your brain can lead to increased willpower. So, exercising both your body and your brain together can help you push yourself even harder.
"You don't have to train your brain for dieting and weight loss with thinking alone," Dr. Pillar says. "When you exercise regularly and for a duration of at least six months, this actually changes your brain to respond to food cues less often."
Different physical exercises rely on different cognitive aspects, such as attention, speed of processing, and even memory. For instance, if you're taking a new dance class at the gym that requires you to remember all the moves, exercising your attention and memory may make those classes easier to follow and more fun. Gives new meaning to mind and body workout!