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Are you healthy enough to learn?

Jan 21, 2021 4:01:06 PM / by Andrew L. Brewer, MS, NBHWC

“Mental hygiene and physical wellness are key to engagement, absorption, and retention.”

I recently completed a Coursera course called Biohacking Your Brain’s Health (see: https://www.coursera.org/learn/biohacking-your-brains-health ) that inspired me to share key takeaways on what you can do for your brain to keep learning and growing in your practice and life.

By now your psyche is implanted with the 3 W’s of keeping safe. You know: wear a face covering, wait 6 feet apart, and wash your hands to minimize exposure to germs, namely the COVID-19 virus. But what about the long term health and wellness strategy conversation we all should be having now? And how does a personal wellness plan fit into your continuing professional development goals? After all, don’t we all want to live long, healthy lives as lifelong learners?!

With the start of the New Year and COVID-19 infection rates seemingly at an all-time high, commitment to personal wellness should be a part of everyone’s daily routine. The recipe is within reach of everyone with just 4 simple ingredients you can choose to cook up a lifestyle for functioning optimally both mentally and physically, reducing overall stress, boosting your energy and immune system to live, love, and learn at your best. So, along with the 3Ws I give you the 4 Keys to Wellness:

Nutrition & Hydration – eat nutritionally dense foods and drink plenty of water. First let me say that this is NOT difficult. Our culinary medicine programs at Northwest AHEC (link) and the Brenner FIT teaching kitchens (see: https://www.brennerchildrens.org/Pediatric-Obesity/ ) have been demonstrating how simple it is to prepare, cook, and enjoy meals that are well-balanced, nutritious, and won’t take all of your time to plan and prepare. Award-winning author Michael Pollen breaks it down in his book In Defense of Food (see: https://michaelpollan.com/books/in-defense-of-food/ ) as simply as can be: eat food, not too much, mostly plants. One of my close friends, who also happens to be a superstar fitness instructor, has a saying that keeps her diet simple: “protein and produce” which helps her minimize simple carbohydrates and focuses on the vegetables and reasonable portions of meat or plant-based protein for lean muscle and sustained energy throughout the day. A couple more tips is to minimize refined sugar, reduce or eliminate caffeine, and use raw vegetables such as carrots and celery and energy packed tree nuts for snacking. Finally, one of the easiest and most important habits it to put a full glass of water by your bedside each night and drink it (or what is left of it) as soon as you wake in the morning to start your day hydrated.

Physical Exercise – One of the most important things you can do for sustained energy and attention and to keep yourself fit is regular exercise. A mix of resistance training, cardio, and stretching will keep you lean, flexible, and able to move without fatigue. One of the lessons from the pandemic has been that we can create space to exercise just about anywhere and adapt using things from around the house to use as props (think buckets of water, cans of food, resistance bands, chair curls, etc.) and I also noticed many more people walking outside than ever. There are thousands of online workout programs from high intensity interval training (HIIT) to dance to yoga for all levels available on demand and most are free to view. So get active however you can: move, lift, and push yourself to strengthen and lengthen your muscles and work your heart to improve your heart rate variability (see https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/heart-rate-variability-new-way-track-well-2017112212789 ). If you’ve never exercised, start small and work to make it a daily habit…you’ll notice improvements in your mood and overall energy levels not to mention increases in BDNF, a protein in your brain that boosts neuroplasticity. More on BDNF here: https://www.foundmyfitness.com/topics/bdnf

Cognitive exercise – the brain is a vital organ that we must also train to stay fit and growing. You can keep it plastic – the term to describe the brain’s ability to learn new things and create new connections and memories. In fact, contrary to conventional wisdom that an old dog cannot learn new tricks, the brain never stops creating new connections unless we stop thinking new thoughts and trying new things. You can increase brain function through a host of natural ways (see: https://selfhacked.com/blog/a-comprehensive-list-of-natural-ways-to-increase-bdnf ) and by challenging yourself to mental games, quizzes, and puzzles (elevate app is my current favorite: https://elevateapp.com/ ) and through mindful meditation – one of the most overlooked tools in the wellness toolbox - although it is getting a lot more attention in these more stressful times as a regular meditation practice can reduce cortisol and inflammation caused by stress! See: http://franticworld.com/free-meditations-from-mindfulness/ for some free meditations to get you started.

Sleep - Getting proper rest is so important for your health (see http://healthysleep.med.harvard.edu/healthy/matters/benefits-of-sleep/learning-memory )! As many of 50% of the US population is considered sleep deprived. 30% adults have short term insomnia with up to 10% chronic. We need a little less sleep as we age but the general rule of thumb is around 8 hours for maximum rest and restoration. Here are some tips to ensure you are getting a good night’s rest: http://sleepeducation.org/essentials-in-sleep/healthy-sleep-habits

In summary, I am saying - and science backs this up - that these 4 essential ingredients are key to your personal wellness, quality of life, and how you can show up optimally in all aspects of your life especially when you are learning new skills, and absorbing and retaining new knowledge like in your continuing professional education activities. And who knows, it may even make you happier which turns out that alone can make you healthier! (The curious link between happiness and health: https://www.mdlinx.com/article/the-curious-links-between-happiness-and-health )

Here’s wishing you the healthiest and happiest year of your life and hope to see you at one of our many learning activities!

Tags: COVID-19, engagement, learning, Wellness

Andrew L. Brewer, MS, NBHWC

Written by Andrew L. Brewer, MS, NBHWC

Instructional Technologist at Northwest AHEC, Nationally Certified Health and Wellness Coach

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