It’s the New Year, which means its both a time of reflection and progressive change for many of us. For me, I have had the privilege of reflecting back on a full year of Ty the NeuroGuy blog posts. It was exactly this time last year that I posted my first article on the benefits of physical activity for your brain. Since I talked the talk, I figured that I should walk the walk, and I tried to get myself to the gym. I am happy to say that I was mostly successful at my exercise goals for 2018. Mostly, being the keyword.
Many different types of NeuroCAM fundamentally boil down to a series of lifestyle choices, requiring constant work to maintain your health. Over the course of my journey, I learned a few things, and I thought that on the anniversary of my first article I would share that wisdom. And since this blog is about brain health, I couldn't resist telling you about your brain in the process. So here are a few tips to meet your NeuroCAM goals in the new year:
1. The foundation for a healthy lifestyle is a set of good habits. Do you ever catch yourself running on autopilot? Maybe when you wake up the first thing you automatically do is check your phone… for half an hour? Your brain is lazy and likes to default to using a structure called the Basal Ganglia to run on autopilot1. The Basal Ganglia helps us do automatic, habitual behaviours, and can be either our best friend or worst enemy in achieving our health goals. I think we could all agree that it's much better for my health to get out of bed and start the day off with a mini-workout than it is to scroll Instagram until I need to rush and head out the door. So, my first tip is this: make your Basal Ganglia work for you, not against you. Try to set up some good habits for your personal health goals.
2. Sadly, tip #1 is a lot easier said than done. To change the way your Basal Ganglia works, you need a little help from one of my favourite brain structures, the Cingulate cortex. The Cingulate is really important for switching from autopilot to conscious decision making2. To get myself out of bed and on the yoga mat, I needed to get the neurons in my Cingulate firing up like some New Year’s Eve fireworks! The Cingulate can help re-train the Basal Ganglia to form new habits2. My advice for this: Suck it up (said with love, and not in an angry tone 😊)! Changing habits can be a lot of work, especially at first. Sadly, there is no magical workaround for the hard work needed to get your Cingulate active3. But, the more I loved myself enough to just do some crunches and squats, the less tedious they felt, and I could almost feel my Basal Ganglia being re-programmed.
3. My Dad always said, "Work smart, not hard." I did not realize how true this was until, as a Class 1 overachiever, I initially thought I could just start a full work out routine before I shower and feel great. But your Basal Ganglia loves to default to the easiest habit (remember your brain is lazy), particularly when stressed (and who was not stressed in 2018?). So I had to start small. Instead of a run, mindfulness and core work out, I settled for just doing a core work out. While this was a far cry from my New Year's resolution, it did one thing: give me a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment, which your Cingulate loves2. My Cingulate liked those feelings just enough to motivate me to do it the next morning, and the next. If there is one thing your Basal Ganglia prefers more than easy habits, its regularity. After a little while I was able to throw in some squats, and now I have the foundation of a good habit that I can build from to reach my Resolution….from 2018. Oh well, better late than never!
To everyone that is trying to put a little more NeuroCAM in their lives this year, I hope that my insights (and explanations) can help validate some of the struggles you face and the successes you can achieve. Make your Basal Ganglia your friend this year and feed your Cingulate some feelings of accomplishment.
Ty the Neuro Guy is a cognitive neuroscience graduate student at the University of Utah and the Research Director for Branch Out Neurological Foundation. Inspired by the creative knowledge translation, Ty helps promote scientific literacy through this blog. You can look forward to an article each month helping explain the science of NeuroCAM. If you have any questions or comments about this article or overall blog, feel free to email Ty McKinney at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Ashby, F. G., Turner, B. O., & Horvitz, J. C. (2010). Cortical and basal ganglia contributions to habit learning and automaticity. Trends in cognitive sciences, 14(5), 208-215.
- Graybiel, A. M. (2008). Habits, rituals, and the evaluative brain. Annu. Rev. Neurosci., 31, 359-387.
- Mulert, C., Menzinger, E., Leicht, G., Pogarell, O., & Hegerl, U. (2005). Evidence for a close relationship between conscious effort and anterior cingulate cortex activity. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 56(1), 65-80.