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How to Become Smarter, Think Better and Achieve a Healthy Brain (Part 2)

Movement is truly a magical pill. It’s great for anyone, and it improves every area of your life, but most importantly movement can help you become smarter and achieve a healthy brain. We discussed this in detail in part one. In today’s article, we’ll continue to look at the benefits of movement for our brain and briefly discuss how eating less can help you thrive.

I thought of starting with this very interesting hadith, which places exercise on an entirely different level. In an authentic hadith that is narrated in At-Tabarani, the Prophet Muhammed (PBUH) said, “Any action which is void of the remembrance of Allah is either a distraction or heedlessness except for four actions: Walking from target to target, i.e. during archery practice, training a horse, playing with one’s family, and learning to swim.”

What is most amazing about this hadith is, almost all of what the Prophet Muhammed (PBUH) mentioned here are physical activities that promote one’s physical strength and health. Though there are so many lessons to be learned from this hadith, for the sake of brevity I would just like to stick to the apparent meaning of it. According to this hadith, your time spent on physical movements or exercise is certainly beneficial for you in this world and the Aakhira than doing other mundane things.  

The latest science is unambiguous about the benefits exercise has on our mood as well as spirituality. Let’s dig in!

Exercise is the best medicine for depression

For long, I had the impression that Muslims are generally safe from depression, but that seems to be far from the truth.

Depression is a serious issue in many Muslim communities around the world. A truly practising, God-conscious Muslim may be safer from depression than less practising Muslims, but this doesn’t mean that God-consciousness is automatically protection against depression. Depression is a real illness and affects people in different ways. It’s important that we acknowledge this and start working on treating it effectively.

Most clinically depressed people get medications prescribed but we now know that simple exercise and movement can help these people better than their expensive medicines. At least, that’s what I’ve found digging in countless research papers.

In the incredible book, How of Happiness, Sonja Lubermeski talks about the importance of walking/jogging (generally about aerobic exercises) for being happy and warding off depression. 

In this book, she cites a scientific research, where clinically depressed individuals are taken into a lab. The researchers split them into three groups. The first group was assigned to four months of aerobic exercise while the second group got an antidepressant medication (Zoloft) and the third group got both exercise and the medication. 

Here are the results in the word of the author herself:

“Remarkably, by the end of the four-month intervention period, all three groups had experienced their depressions lift and reported fewer dysfunctional attitudes and increased happiness and self-esteem. Aerobic exercise was just as effective at treating depression as was Zoloft, or as a combination of exercise and Zoloft. Yet exercise is a lot less expensive, usually with no side effects apart from soreness. Perhaps even more remarkably, six months later, participants who had ‘remitted’ (recovered) from their depressions were less likely to relapse if they had been in the exercise group (six months ago!) than if they had been in the medication group.” 

Subhanallah! That was truly my reaction when I first read this! May Allah subuhanawuta’la grant us all the ability to understand and put the beneficial things we learn into practice.

Now, if you want to take one step further, try to walk/exercise in forests or natural parks. It seems that being outside in nature is much better than just walking on the treadmill inside your house or gym.  

In Move Your DNA, Katy Bowman tells us just how walking in the forest is beneficial for our energetic hygiene.

Here’s how she puts it: “Shinrin-yoku, or ‘forest bathing,’ is the process of making contact with and taking in the atmosphere of the forest. Heavily researched in Japan, forest-bathing has been shown to promote lower concentrations of cortisol, lower pulse rate and blood pressure, and a reduction of ‘technostress,’ as measured by a reduction in cerebral activity.

While anyone who has spent a few hours wandering out in nature can tell you that yes, it’s very relaxing, it is through scientific investigations that the mechanism behind our physiological response to the trees is better understood.

We aren’t responding to the trees per se, but rather undergoing an invisible interaction with phytoncides—active chemical substances given off by plants. The tree, secreting these substances to ward off harmful bugs and rot, is also providing us with a compound that does our body good.”

Why exercise is good for your creativity

All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking.” – Nietsche 

In Healthy Brain, Happy Life, Neuroscientist Wendy Suzuki argues that exercise can be a very powerful medium to increase your creative juices

She argues that hippocampus (we talked about it in part one, remember?) is not only important for memory, but also for imagination, which is a key component of creativity.

Now, how does exercise play a part in your creativity? Well, exercise helps to create brand-new brain cells (aka neurogenesis) in the hippocampus. And she hypothesises that these new brain cells enhance our imaginative ability.  

I feel this is so true from my own experience. Whenever I’m stuck in my writing process, all I do is a vigorous walk. Soon after my walk, I feel it’s much easier to write and share my ideas with you 🙂

In this short 3-minute video, she explains how exercise can help you improve your creativity in a nutshell.

How movement can help your children to excel

As a father of three gorgeous princesses, I’m always interested in how I can help my children to excel in everything they do.

So after learning about the significance of movement for brain health, I was intrigued to know how important it is for children.

Do you want me to summarise everything I learned about movement for kids? Here is what I can tell you in a few sentences:

If you want your child to behave well, have more focus and excel in education (I guess that’s what pretty much all the parents want, right?), one of the best and easiest things you can do is to make your child move a lot. The more he/she moves, the better they become at it.

What the most fascinating thing is, that movement (any sports or exercise in general) help your children to control their emotions better. If you have a teen at home, you know how important emotion control is 🙂 So what’s the best thing you can do for your kids? Chase them outside to move more. Let them run, play and jump as much as they can. The last thing they need is a digital device to keep them hooked on their chair.

Here are some studies (among 100s of studies) that I find most interesting to share. In a fascinating study in the University of Dublin, Ireland, scientists found that students who work out regularly had a better memory than students who didn’t work out. So, if you are a student or if you just want a great memory (and memory is the most important ingredient for learning), I don’t know of a better way to boost your brain than by working out regularly.

Research in the Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology found that the higher fitness level of students is associated with higher cognitive performance and academic performance.

In another research involving more than 1000 students, scientist found that passing both the Mathematics and English test increased as the number of fitness tests passed increased.

So here is the takeaway message for you: Activities or the movements I’ve been talking about are great for anyone. It improves every area of your life. However, the number of hours your kids spend in movement define who they are in 5,10 or 20 years!

There is so much more to share about the benefits of movement, but for the sake of brevity, I’m stopping here. However, I hope I’ve now convinced you to move more 🙂

If that’s the case, here is a simple protocol to move more.

How to move more: 

I keep on mentioning the word move because it encompasses all the activities too (Check part one to learn more). You can move pretty much any day, anywhere, in any fashion. You don’t need any particular plans or outfits. You are free to do when and where you want.

So the tips I’m going to provide you are exclusively about moving more and not about working out more. There is a difference, and I talked about it in part one.

Here are some of my practical ideas (that I follow and teach my clients too). Start what is easy for you and then build up slowly.

10’000 steps a day

Regardless of your fitness level, starting to move 10,000 (roughly around 7 km) steps a day is a great place to start. If that’s a difficult goal, at least start with 5,000 steps and then increase the steps slowly to achieve your 10,000-steps-a-day goal.

Here is the thing; you don’t need to make these 10,000 steps in one sitting. Every small step counts. You can track your steps on your smartphone or smartwatch. To achieve your daily 10,000 steps, here are a few practical suggestions: 

  • Track your progress: What gets tracked gets improved. Just the simple act of tracking will motivate you to move more.
  • Plan your walk ahead: Plan to go for a walk at least two times for 20 minutes a day.
  • Walk 2 minutes every hour: Every waking hour, walk at least for 2 minutes (check the research I mentioned in part one of this article). If you are awake 16 hours a day, it makes a total of 32 minutes. Set an automatic reminder (I use this app), otherwise, you’ll forget it.
  • Use stairs instead of elevators.
  • Instead of taking a short cut to masjid/work/office/school, take a slightly longer route. Even if it’s just 50 m longer, it adds up.

How eating less leads to a healthier brain

In part one, I told you that there are two simple hacks to achieve a healthier brain. The second hack is about eating less. Eating less has tremendous health benefits for us. It’s not just about losing weight, but the benefits have a lot to do with increased lifespan (these researchers are done on mice and monkeys, not on humans), less age-related diseases etc.

According to this research from Florida State University, one of the most important benefits of eating less is perhaps that it may reduce the risks of neurodegenerative disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease etc.

And in many other researchers that are done on mice and monkeys prove that a calorie restricted diet, in fact, may improve brain health in various ways.

Though we don’t have conclusive results on how caloric reduction can lead to better brain health in humans, scientists do say that the preliminary results indicate a positive change in the brain health of humans, when they reduce their calories.

So these researches are still in preliminary stages. But that didn’t prevent me from mentioning it, because I’ve got the hadith of our beloved Prophet Muhammed (PBUH) to back up 🙂 As you know, in the Sunnah, we are advised to eat less and encouraged not to fill our stomach. As long as we stick to the Sunnah, we’ve certainly countless benefits for this world and in the Aakhira. And given from all the other research materials, we know that eating less has huge benefits for our well-being and there is no reason to believe that the benefits won’t extend to our brain health.

I do need to insist on one thing here. The quality of your food trumps the quantity of your food. So just eating less won’t help you, if the quality of your food is sub-optimal. The types of food you eat influences your health, mood and emotions more than the quantity of your food. Consuming 300 calories’ worth of broccoli is not the same as eating a cup of sugar-laden cereals with 300 calories.

And we also know from studies that sugar for instance increase laziness and unhealthy trans-fats make you more aggressive. And both sugar and trans-fats are abundant in most processed foods.

So next time you sit to start, make sure you eat whole quality foods that are not processed and eat only until you are 80 per cent full.

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