A Balanced Way to Exercise your Brain

So what do we actually need to do to keep our brains functioning as well as possible as we get older? In The Mature Mind, Dr. Gene Cohen writes about how challenging physical and mental exercise stimulate brain growth factors, chemicals that cause primitive brain cells to mature into neurons.  Physical and psychological stress can suppress this, especially when it is chronic.  So with all of our stress, how are we not all brain dead by now?  The good news is that our neurons can recover if we nourish them properly.

Your physical activity doesn’t have to be rigorous but you do need some regular aerobic exercise to increase blood flow to your brain.  This removes waste products, improves oxygen levels and increases endorphins.  This will also slow the decline in brain function that comes with aging and increase neural connections within your brain.  You can even add a social component to exercise that will help even more.  Having a strong social network helps to lower stress hormones and your blood pressure. 

We also need mental activity to improve your brain function and it needs to be challenging.  It is even better if it is fun.  This can be found in our work, in volunteer activities, in social activities or even in our alone time.  Learn a new language, take a class in something you always wanted to learn, join an art or music program, join a knitting or scrapbooking group, or take a dance class.  Spend your leisure time reading, writing, doing word puzzles or watching informative videos (especially if it is a skill you try out).  Even actively watching sports can exercise your brain (except maybe baseball).  One of my favorite activities is traveling.  There is all the planning, you are learning and seeing new things and you exercise as you explore.

Achieving mastery in something you enjoy can really improve your health.  And I don’t mean you need to become a professor or go to the Olympics.  You just need to gradually and steadily improve your knowledge and skill and strive to reach some higher level.  This increases your positivity and sense of control, which boosts your immune system and mindset.

Dr. Cohen recommends a great way to make sure you are getting balanced exercise for your brain. You can make a box with four squares.  On one side is low or high mobility.  On the other is individual or group.  So you would have boxes for low mobility/individual activity, high mobility/individual activity, low mobility/group activity and high mobility\group activity.  Put everything you do into the appropriate category.  You then get a visual account of what types of activities fill your days. If you are diversified in your activities, you are more resilient to change.  For example, I do taiko drumming with a group (high mobility/group), am in a book club (low mobility/group), I hike and run (high mobility/individual), and I am learning Italian (low mobility/individual).

Make a box for yourself and fill it with activities in each category.  What is your ratio of each category?  Where can you add some activities to balance yourself?  I would love to hear how it turned out and how you are planning to grow.

A Healthy Mind in Midlife and Beyond

Okay, so it may have taken a moment to realize that I was placing the yogurt container into the dish cabinet instead of taking it back to the fridge.  And I can’t remember a name to save my life.  I can, however, help my daughter translate a Latin sentence, watch the Cubs and the Suns simultaneously while also reading my email, and tackle a whole new career.  It is incredible to think back over our lives at how much we have learned and experienced.  Our brains have taken in so much and still have room for more.

There are parts of our brain that decline, like memory, and injury or illness effects can build up, like with Alzheimer’s.  When I talk with people who are in midlife, one of their biggest concerns is not death but disability and dementia.  It is scary to think that we may not be completely in control of our minds some day.  Fortunately, research is showing that there are steps we can take to build up our brain tissue and keep it functioning well. 

As life span increases, we can increase the amount of healthy active years in midlife rather than resigning ourselves to a long decline.  Every book I read about neuroscience tends to mention the long-term study that was done with a group of nuns.  They stayed mentally and physically active into their later years.  Their brains were examined after they died and showed severe signs of Alzheimer’s disease. However, in life, they didn’t show the amount of cognitive decline that would have been expected with these physical brain changes.  Being active kept their brains adapting and functioning well.

By making our brains work, we keep building and repairing connections along and between the neurons.  Also as we get older, the connections between the different sides and different parts of the brain increase.  So even if our brain processing speed decreases, we have much more brain to draw on.  We connect the dots better and have much more knowledge we can use.

In order to keep our brain working well, we need to feed it and exercise it.  We feed it by doing physical activity regularly and vigorously enough to increase blood flow to our brain.  Dr. Art Kramer, a neuroscientist, showed that aerobic exercise for an hour three times per week increased brain volume and improved focus.  Staying fit also helps to reduce physical problems that can adversely affect our brain or prevent us from having the energy to keep mentally active.  The more we keep up with our physical fitness as we approach and enter midlife, the more we will continue that into our older years.  It needs to be an intentional choice right now so that we will continue to have choices in the future.

Come back next week to hear about what mental exercise we can do to keep our brains humming along.

Midlife Brains are Number One

It is often thought that our brains go downhill the older we get.  Actually, the opposite is true.  There are so many ways in which our minds improve as we age and there is much we can do to keep them strong. 

As the years of living and learning add up, we become more positive, adaptive and creative.  Young brains tend to compartmentalize and use either the right or left side of the brain to process thoughts and emotions.  People in midlife have more integration of the various parts of the brain and that allows us to see the bigger picture and respond to things in a more comprehensive way.  One way to think of this is as wisdom.  We have a greater sense of self, a more realistic view and a longer-term perspective.   Our brain has developed more connections that regulate our emotions so we are less likely to be overcome by negative emotions. 

There is variability, however, in each person.  How we live our lives now and have lived them in the past can affect how our brain develops and adapts.  Continuous learning helps our neurons and other brain tissue to keep building over time.  People who have more education and more complex jobs show less decline in brain function in their later years.  They tend to live independently longer and are less likely to have a long period of disability before their death.  The more cognitive ability you build up over the first half or more of your life, the more you are able to adapt as normal aging affects your brain. 

Environmental toxins and regular aging changes are unavoidable but our lifestyle choices affect how our brain is able to recover from the injury these cause to our neurons.  Stress, smoking, inactivity, poor nutrition, excessive drugs or alcohol, obesity and other medical conditions affect our brains’ ability to function well and reduce our ability to recover from injury and aging changes.

The good news is that, the older we get, the more we tend to take control of our own lives and the less outside influences affect us.  We tend to get more assertive and willing to take more risks. We realize that we can take the actions we need to take to reduce negative factors and improve positive ones. We have learned that we can handle what life throws at us and have figured out how to bring together all of the skills and knowledge we have to tackle a situation. We are also taking stock of what truly matters in life and are willing to put in the work to get what we want.  Stay tuned for more about how to keep your brain healthy and improving.

Meditation is Worth a Try

Close your eyes for a few moments and listen to the sounds around you.  There, you just meditated.  We have all heard how good meditation is for us, but it also seems too difficult.  We imagine we have to have some out-of-body experience or sit still on a cushion for hours without a thought in our mind.   Meditation, though, is merely about being present.  It is being aware of your body and your place in the world in this very moment.

I learned about meditation years ago and kept trying to do it but then giving up after a short period.  Then I read some books by Daniel Siegel and learned his Wheel of Awareness.  I now start my meditation by noticing all of my senses and then I do a scan of my body.  I imagine energy coming into my body with my breath and then diffusing into each part of my body.  Then I send out loving kindness to people in my life and all living creatures in the world.  As I do these various practices, my mind wanders and when I notice that, I bring it back to the present moment.  Now I meditate almost every day for 15-20 minutes. 

At the beginning, I couldn’t sit still for that long, so I started with walking meditation.  I went to a quiet area of the park and walked very slowly noticing the details of trees, flowers and rocks and listening to the birds.  Eventually, I could stand still or sit for part of the time. And now I mostly sit, alternating between closing and opening my eyes.

Science has shown many health benefits in people who meditate regularly.  It reduces our stress level, literally shrinking the organ in our brain that reacts to stress.  One of the main effects is that it helps us learn how to be present in every moment.  Meditation in practice is basically realizing that your mind has wandered and then bringing it back to the present moment.   This translates into being mindful during our everyday lives.  We better notice what is present for us in this moment.  What are we thinking and feeling in our body?   How are we reacting to others or a situation?  How do we respond intentionally rather than react impulsively?

Try meditation and see what benefits you notice.  Start with just a few moments each day or a few days per week.  Notice your senses and your breathing.  Feel your feet on the ground or your back against the chair.  Just notice where you are in this moment.   When you notice that your attention has wandered, bring it back to the present moment.  When you bring your attention back to the present, you are meditating.  If you want to go deeper than that, there are many teachers and apps available.  I am certainly not an expert, but I can attest to the balance and grounding it brings to your everyday life.  Please let me know how it goes for you.

Are “Shoulds” Hijacking Your Life?

As I sat meditating on top of a hill in a North Scottsdale preserve surrounded by cacti and watching the hummingbirds, I thought about how far I had come from the south side of Chicago.  I had always hated the cold so I moved to someplace that is 90 degrees at six am.  I feel at home in this desert.  And yet, I hadn’t started hiking weekly until last year.  There were so many other things that I thought I “should” do with my time, mainly involving working.  It was the same thing with the type of work I “should” do.  I have been a veterinarian in a small animal clinic for 27 years.  While the work has been rewarding in many ways, it was also very stressful and exhausting.  In spite of that, I didn’t consider the options of what I could do with my knowledge and skill set or if I even wanted to keep using that knowledge and skill set.  I basically kept my head down and put one foot in front of the other, doing all the things in life that “had” to get done.

And then my fiftieth birthday loomed in the near future.  Hopefully age has no meaning to you, but for me fifty was a shock.  And an awakening.  It was time to let go of the “shoulds” in my life.  I explored possible career change and found coaching.  With that came an exploration of my daily life and what I did with my time.  It is hard, but I am trying to include more nature in my life, meditation and slowing down, and spending more time with friends and colleagues (mainly on zoom right now but that is better than nothing).

What do you need to let go of in your life to truly enjoy life and find meaning in it?  What are the “should”s and “have to”s that consume all of your time and energy?  Take five to ten minutes and write down all the things on your to do list this week.  Then take a few minutes to ponder how they got onto your list.  Do they really need to be done?  Will they add something important to your life?  Did they get onto the list intentionally or was it the creep of it “should” be done and I “have” to do it?

Then pan out to the larger picture.  Are you doing work that you really want to do or do you feel you “have” to stay in this job?  Are you living how you really want to or in a way that you “should”?  Are you spending your money intentionally and on things that truly improve your life?  Do you want to downsize your house and possessions and spend less time working?  Or would you rather switch to work that you enjoy more but is less lucrative?  Do you have dreams that you can’t imagine being able to afford while you spend money on small splurges you think you need, but don’t really enrich your life?

“Should”s are imposed on us by many sources: society, culture, family, friends, ourselves.  Living with intention means examining the various aspects of our lives and deciding what we want and need to do to really be happy.  What can we let go of and replace with something that really adds meaning or leads to improvement of our lives?

Grand Canyon

Listen to your Future Self

What did you want to be when you grew up? Think back to when you were a child or adolescent. How did you imagine your life when you were an adult?  Where did you think you would live and work?  What type of family would you have? How did you predict you would spend your time?

How well does your current life match those dreams?  If you could talk to that child now, yourself at ten or twenty years old, what would you want to tell yourself?  Would you have listened to your older selves when you were young?  Probably, not.  I don’t think I would have.  Now, however, I am sure most of us would welcome some insight from our older selves.  How will everything turn out?

There is an exercise I have done with many of my coaching clients in which I lead them through a visualization of their future self.  They imagine having a conversation with themselves twenty years into the future.   Through this exercise, my clients realize what is really important to them and what will make them happy in the future.

You can imagine your future self as well.  Imagine you are at a family gathering or community event held in honor of you.  What will you want your list of accomplishments to be?  What will you want those who know and love you to hold in their hearts about you?  Then imagine yourself on a regular day ten to twenty years in the future.  Where are you and what is making you happy?  Who are you with and what are you doing?

Only by knowing where you want to be can you start moving in that direction.  What do you need to start doing now for your emotional, physical and financial health long into the future?

Learn Balance from a Tree

During one of my morning walks through a park, I stopped for a few moments in front of this tree.  The curving branches spreading out on all sides struck me as a good metaphor for our lives.  A tree has a thick solid trunk with roots reaching deep into the ground.  The roots keep the tree very stable and provide nutrients for life.  The branches start out thick and divide out into smaller and smaller branches.  This gives balance and flexibility to the tree.  When the wind blows, the branches move with it.  The branches also sprout a multitude of leaves, which take in energy from the sun and carbon dioxide from the air.  The energy taken in by the leaves nourishes the entire tree.  They also provide the beauty and diversity of trees. 

If our life has a solid trunk and deep roots, we are stable and feel grounded.  Some of us are born into a stable and supportive family while many of us have to create that for ourselves.  We all have to continuously work at nurturing that foundation and often rely on family and friends to help us.  Just as trees help each other through their roots under the ground, we can provide that help for each other.

The branches of the tree are similar to all the various aspects in our life in which we branch out. If one branch is outsized, it consumes all the energy, leaving the other branches weak and the tree unsteady.  A strong wind can cause damage.  If the branches are balanced in size and direction, we can more easily bend with the wind and grow in a healthy manner.  All of our happy and meaningful moments in life are like the leaves taking in energy and helping us to grow and flourish.  We can then share our flowers and fruits with the world around us.

In coaching, we often use the Wheel of Life with our clients.  This is divided into the various parts of our life that we need to balance.  The sections include career, money, friends and family, significant other, physical environment, health, personal growth, and fun and recreation.  By imagining these areas as branches spreading us out into the world, we can see how a healthy balance can keep us strong and happy.


I don’t mean to remind you of chemistry class, but I do want to refresh your memory about one topic: catalysts. A catalyst is a substance that increases the rate of a chemical reaction without itself undergoing any permanent chemical change.  It is usually small and does not use up a large amount of energy.  In your life, a catalyst is an event or idea that propels you forward in a direction you want to go.  It could be a book, a video, a conversation with a friend, a dream, or a coaching session.  You know what you want in life and how to get there, you just don’t know that you know.

A few of years ago, I was burnt out in my work and started looking for work I would enjoy.  I read some books and did lots of thinking.  One weekend, I found some videos about coaching and watched all of them.  I considered joining that coaching program but that didn’t seem like the best fit for me.  I researched coaching programs and found Co-Active Training Institute, which sounded perfect for me.  I eventually earned my certification through CTI and I love being a coach. I may have eventually found out about coaching another way but these videos were a catalyst and got me in gear.

When the catalyst sparks your energy, you gain insight and take the first steps to get you where you want to go. You are seeing catalysts often but may not be paying attention.  If you keep yourself open to catalysts, you will be able to use them to spark change.  What has triggered your thinking recently?  How can you act on it?

Build Momentum

As we reach our third chapter, many of us realize that we are not as happy and satisfied as we want to be, as we deserve to be.  Yet, we are afraid to even think about what we truly want our life to be like.  We can’t imagine taking a big leap to a new job or new way of living.  But we know that we want something different, something more. 

We can start with small, incremental changes.  Our journey into our third chapter and beyond is an ever changing and never complete path.  Maybe you want a huge change or maybe you just want some things to be different.  We can all get started with a first step.  As Suzanne Braun Levine says in her book 50 is the New Fifty, “you are not who you were, only older”.  We have all grown and evolved over the years.  We can now let go of earlier expectations of who we should be or what we should do.  We have a lifetime of experience and learning and we have changed along the way.  Where do you want to go next?  Things will change even if you do nothing.  As Peter Drucker said, the best way to predict the future is to create it.  What do you want to create?  What small step can you do today?

Making it through Transition

On a recent hike through the McDowell Sonoran Preserve, I struggled up a steep incline toward Bell Pass.  My goal for the day was a 9.4 mile loop through beautiful desert.  I had made it fairly easily through the first two miles of the trail with its gradual incline.  I could see the top of the ridge but didn’t know exactly how far I had to go to the pass.  I had to stop every few minutes to catch my breath and let my legs rest.   This reminded me of a term that was described during my Bradley method birthing class: transition.  This is the worst part of birthing a baby, when the pain is the worst and you feel like you just can’t do it.  Knowing about the transition phase and that you are in it, helps you to get through it because you know it will pass.  In the same way, as I labored my way up the trail, I knew that this was the hardest part and well worth the overall hike.  When I reached the pass, miles of open desert stretched out before me in a gorgeous view and I rewarded myself with a snack. 

Many times we talk about making a transition in our lives or careers.  I had never related it to the birthing term before though.  The hike through the preserve was a good metaphor for my journey so far in my coaching business.  I had hiked up the first part in a gradual  climb, taking classes and gaining my certification.   This was challenging but very doable.  Now I am in the steep climb of refining my work and building my business.  I am not really sure where the top is.  There are ups and downs.  I often have to stop and catch my breath and look for support.  Once I reach the peak, I will still have lots of hiking to do, but hopefully it will be enjoyable.  Knowing that I am in the transition phase helps me to understand why I am struggling and that I will eventually get through it if I keep putting one step in front of the other.  Then I can gleefully jog down the next part of the trail until the next incline slows me down again.

As I help others through their transition, I try to help them keep their eyes on the goal while accepting that this is difficult and it may take some struggle to get there.  We can stop and rest and catch our breath.  We can pause and look back at how far we have hiked up the trail.  We can look to small goals along the path such as reaching the next ridge then celebrate when we get there.  We can enjoy the scenery along the way and the support of those hiking with us.  The journey is worth it.