It’s week 45 here at More Than Healthy, and this week’s Full Year of Resolutions, Tip #45 is one of our favorite topics: The health benefits of brain training. I have spent years studying the power available to us through this remarkable, three-pound organ. The brain is the most complex part of the human body. It houses our intelligence, interprets all of our senses, initiates body movement, and controls behavior, just to name a few of it’s regulatory jobs. I also fully believe that brain training is the reason I am still alive today.
Living proof that brain training works
I’m going to let my wife, Carla, tell you a bit more about that, from her perspective:
“David is living proof that brain training works. He has worked so hard on changing his thoughts around nutrition, sleep, and supplementation. He’s sitting here today because of all that hard work. There was a time that I thought that he wouldn’t still be here. When he was diagnosed with bladder cancer a third time, my heart absolutely sank. We had worked to stay so positive through the previous two cancer battles, but when I hear someone has cancer a third time, I think they’re probably not going to make it.
But I never told David that. I wanted to stay positive and helpful. I worked hard to do all I could to help build his immune system to fight another battle with cancer. But in the back of my mind, I started putting a plan together just in case. I made him sell our company (I truly felt like the stress of the company was killing him so we needed to get rid of all stressors). And I wanted to move out of our house which I felt was killing him too (it had radon, but that’s a story for another post).
I went and found a new house that was smaller, with an HOA that took care of the yard and snow removal, and was closer to all our grandkids. Honestly, I knew I would need them around if David passed. I also focused on decluttering and getting rid of all our junk, because I wanted David’s help doing that while he still could.”
Until this year, I had no idea about Carla’s thoughts and plans six years ago. She was always so positive and my biggest cheerleader, saying, “We will fight this, you will get past this, you can do this!” And I’m so glad she did. I needed all that positive energy around me while I was working so hard to get rid of the cancer. I needed all my brain power working on that one goal.
Thoughts are energy
Let’s dig into what it means to train your brain a bit more, because the power of this practice goes far beyond your dietary health. I love this quote by Susan L.Taylor: “Thoughts are energy. And you can make your world or break your world by thinking.”
How many thoughts would you guess that you think each day? Scientists suggest the average person processes 6,200 separate thoughts each and every day! 6,200! These thoughts not only affect our many daily choices, they also affect our behaviors and habits, especially since the great majority of our thoughts happen at a subconscious level. This means your brain has a powerful influence on your appearance, mood, weight, stress levels, and overall health.
So how do we create a brain-friendly environment that will allow us to edit these things, along with unhealthy food and beverage habits?
A brain training exercise
Let me share a brain training experience I had. I grew up on Coca-Cola products. I started young and didn’t stop—I drank several delicious, icy-cold Cokes every day, and my addiction level was strong! Then, several years ago I wrote an article about sugar. It was no longer possible to avoid the reality of what I was ingesting, and it motivated me to overcome my habit. And just 60 days later, I had stopped drinking Coke.
A couple of years ago, however, I started drinking Coke Zero. I rationalized that I could enjoy the flavor of my old friend Coke without all the bad sugars. Of course, there were two big issues I was trying hard not to think about: aspartame and caffeine, two villains in our fight for good health and great sleep. Plus, Coke Zero is highly addictive, just like its cousin, Coke.
But as I started learning and teaching more about brain training, my Coke Zero habit came to mind. I had eliminated so many of my negative health behaviors like eating gluten and sugar, but I really wanted to hold onto this one. Couldn’t I keep this one, small thing? Just thinking about the satisfying sizzle of bubbles, pouring that delicious brown liquid over my favorite pebble ice, made me happy. (By the way, that’s red-flag, addiction-level happiness!) But I knew that the reality was that this daily habit was affecting my health.
A “brain edit”
In the process of researching and trying to train our own brains to break a bad habit, More Than Healthy developed a protocol that anyone can use when trying to train the brain. It starts with a “brain edit.” You do this by first finding a positive behavior to replace the negative behavior. When I was trying to kick my Coke Zero habit, I decided to substitute drinking Coke Zero with drinking water.
I’m sure you are thinking what I was thinking: “Water is BORING.” The truth is, I wasn’t nearly as excited to drink water as I was to have my Coke Zero. But I tried to find ways to make water more exciting, like cutting up fresh limes or lemons and squeezing them in for added taste.
I also frequently acknowledged, both mentally and out loud, that I was changing my behavior to completely stop drinking Coke Zero and replace it with water. My brain needed to hear it and think about it in order to realize that I was truly committed to the change.
The scientific reason for talking out loud to yourself
Our brain believes what we say, both internally and out loud. Research shows that talking to ourselves out loud really does make a difference. It helps motivate you to move forward when it comes to tackling a goal, helps you focus on a task, and combats self-criticism.
There is even a scientific name for this, called “feedback hypothesis.” or “selected attention.” In a related study, researchers asked subjects to go through a stack of photos looking for a specific photo of an assigned object. If participants said the name of whatever they were looking for out loud, they found the image faster.
Athletes use this same strategy to improve performance. One study showed that basketball players who uttered motivational affirmations to themselves, like “I can make this basket” played better than those who stayed silent.
There is a particular kind of focus that comes from talking to yourself out loud. This can be applied to everyday things, like remembering what we need at the grocery store. Or when retraining your brain when you want to break a negative habit or incorporate a new, positive one.
Find your WHY
Next we need to address the “why.” I know I talk about finding your WHY a lot, but it’s because replacing behaviors that we’ve made so natural in our lives takes extreme commitment. Training our brains also uses the Why-How-What process we’ve explored before. For my Coke Zero behavior, my reasoning looked like this:
The Why: I want to celebrate my 50th anniversary with Carla (when I’m 95 years old) by dancing with her in the middle of all of our kids, grandkids, and great grandkids. Coke Zero’s caffeine has dramatically affected the quality of my sleep, and the aspartame has negative effects on my health.
The How: When offered a choice of beverages, I will select water. (I will always ask for lemon or lime slices if available.)
The What: First, I will do the daily visualization script (available in our book) that helps edit out the bad behavior; second, I will not buy Coke Zero at grocery stores or convenience stores; and third, I will not let others who are drinking Coke Zero affect my commitment.
Be accountable to someone
It’s extra helpful if you can create ways that you can be accountable for your goals and brain-training efforts. There are ways to help you be accountable to yourself (through journaling, using an app, or a visible checklist). But if at all possible, find someone else that can help hold you accountable.
Research found there is a 65% greater chance of meeting an objective if you have committed to someone in addition to yourself that you are going to do so. Even better, if you set up specific “accountability appointments” with them, your chances of success in reaching your objective increase by 95%!
When I was working on retraining my brain and giving up my Coke Zero habit, I would record how I did each night in my app. I’d also tell Carla, “Dry another day!” She would laugh and say, “Great job!” And, it was working. My verbal affirmations were imprinting new neural pathways that were literally changing my thoughts. The Why-How-What was clearly defined, and it was working. I was being accountable and recording my progress every day.
By giving myself these tangible steps, I was able to train my brain. I’ve been “dry” ever since! I’ve slept better and had better health as a result. Brain training truly has been the crux of my success!
The power of your subconscious mind
Training the brain is so critical! All of our habits and patterns are stored in the subconscious mind. It knows your comfort zones and works to keep you in them. However, the subconscious mind obeys what the conscious mind tells it to. Through brain editing, accountability practices, and working through your WHY, you have the power to literally rewrite the script and change your brain.
“Best-case scenario” thinking
You might be surprised to see the list of health benefits that come from positive thinking. The Mayo Clinic lists all of the following as it pertains to your health when it comes to thinking positively:
- Increased life span
- Lower rates of depression
- Lower levels of distress and pain
- Greater resistance to illnesses
- Better psychological and physical well-being
- Better cardiovascular health and reduced risk of death from cardiovascular disease and stroke
- Reduced risk of death from cancer
- Reduced risk of death from respiratory conditions
- Reduced risk of death from infections
- Better coping skills during hardships and times of stress
That is a pretty profound list. But as I look at it, I feel like I’ve experienced most if not all of those health benefits from my own brain training work. It really is possible to turn negative thinking into positive thinking.
Productive positive thinking
To be clear, positive thinking doesn’t mean you should ignore life’s less-than-pleasant situations. It simply means that you approach the unpleasantness in a more positive, productive way. Instead of thinking the worst is going to happen, you deliberately work to focus on best-case scenarios.
To illustrate the power of this, researchers took two groups participating in a dart throwing contest. One group was instructed to think positively, such as “I can do this!” While the other group was told to think negatively (“I can’t do this”) as they threw. Those who thought positively consistently earned higher scores. For an in-depth look at the power of positive thinking, check out Charles Fernyhough’s book, The Voices Within: The History and Science of How We Talk to Ourselves.
Training your brain to change a habit
The process of training your brain is simple, but it does take time and effort. You’re creating a new habit, after all. Start with identifying areas to change. Start small by focusing on one area to approach in a more positive way. As you start to retrain your brain, check yourself. Periodically throughout your day, stop and evaluate what you’re thinking.
Do you find that many of your thoughts are negative? (For example, “Gluten is just too hard for me to give up!” or, “I just can’t do this!”) If so, try to find a way to put a positive spin on your thoughts. (For example, “I feel so much better when I don’t eat gluten.”)
Also, be open to humor. I’ve used humor my whole life to deal with the challenges I’ve faced. We talked about this in an earlier post on laughter, so go check it out. One of the best ways is to surround yourself with positive people and those who can be your biggest cheerleaders. Reduce the amount of time you spend around negative people – and that includes yourself!
I like the saying, “Don’t say anything to yourself that you wouldn’t say to someone else.” We can be our own worst critics, and we need to be gentle and encouraging to ourselves. If a negative thought comes into your mind, evaluate it rationally and respond with positive affirmations of what is good about you.
Gratitude changes our brains
Also, practice gratitude. There is so much life-changing power in gratitude! In 2014, I became a specialist in brain training. I’d been working with people to help them lose weight and improve their health, and I wanted to harness the power available through changing the way people think. Everyone struggles with mental baggage, and the world bombards us with negativity. So one of the things I always did was ask my clients to practice gratitude by using a gratitude journal.
As you write down your thoughts and feelings, you realize how much you have to be grateful for. And as you focus on those things, your body releases a combination of endorphins, dopamine, and oxytocin, which scientists compare to a runner’s high. Those chemicals are magical, and you actually start to feel better! Gratitude changes our thoughts, and it changes our actual physical well-being!
The health benefits of brain training can work for you
So what is your brain thinking about the idea of brain training? Is this a new idea? Or have you already been using brain training in your health journey? We’d sure love to hear about it! Let us know if you have any questions about this or any of our tips, reach out. We love hearing from you.
For those of you interested in our free More Than Healthy coaching calls We do them once a month on a Tuesday night at 6 PM MST. Anyone can join us. If you have health questions on anything we’ve discussed or any health issue, you can ask it live, you can type it in comments, or you can just listen in as others get coached. It’s up to you how you’d like to show up. To join us, just text COACHING to 1-647-558-9895 to get on our email list or watch our social media pages and we will have the link there.
Thanks so much for joining us, we’ll see you next week for another fabulous More Than Healthy tip.