If, like us, you’re exhausted by all those men’s fitness magazine covers promising ironman muscle hacks, killer arms and programmes guaranteed to ‘swap fat for stacked’, it’s time to take action. We don’t mean on the elliptical cross trainer. Because there’s more to life than a symmetrical set of deltoids.
Yeah, boulder shoulders are all well and good. But one body part none of these 'beach-ready in 28 days' protocols seem to address is the one that genuinely can change our lives for the better. Our brain. And one thing it has in common with our biceps? You gotta use it or lose it.
So how can you keep the old grey matter in tip-top condition? Here are our six routes to a mental six pack even Idris Elba would be proud of.
It’s meditation without the spiritual mumbo-jumbo (*although spiritual mumbo jumbo is fine, if that’s what you’re seeking, too). Mindfulness is, like any skill, something that gets better with practice. Its basic philosophy is that we should pay attention to the here and now, rather than living in our heads. That our thoughts - whether good, bad, or ‘why am I not stacked like Owen Farrell’ - are just that: thoughts. They’re not real. Being more mindful of the present moment has been shown to improve our mental wellbeing, and make us all more in tune with the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of the present moment. And you know what they say about the present? It’s a gift. It’s free to do, too. No equipment required.
Try Head Space to see if it can work for you.
Learn a new skill
Think you’re too long in the tooth to learn new tricks. Au contraire (that’s French. We just learned it.) We’re hungry for new experiences - and learning something new: a language, cookery, piano, heck even basket weaving - does something really cool. It makes you better at learning. The white matter in your brain - myelin - is the stuff that gets activated when we learn new stuff. And when we learn new stuff, the more myelin our brains produce. See, French lessons are to your brain what dumbbells are to your biceps. How cool is that? And maybe learning new stuff helps you meet new people, see the world differently, challenge your view of the world. And that’s always a good thing, right?
Try out The Great Courses
Rewire your brain
Neuroplasticity (that’s a big word, we just learned that too) is plain awesome. It’s the brain's ability to reorganize, and power itself up by forming new neural connections. And it’s our neurons that keep us sharp. It does it throughout our life, when we input new data. And that doesn’t have to mean basket weaving. It means walking a different way to the pub. It means changing your weekend routine. Listening to completely different music. It means getting out of your comfort zone. And a nice byproduct of all this? You might discover something that’s been hiding in plain sight all along. Let’s face it, most of are stuck in a groove. Old habits die hard. But little twists can reap big rewards. So instead of flopping on the sofa for another Breaking Bad marathon - try listening to an audiobook, or having a conversation with an old friend, instead of What’s Apping!
Work up a sweat
Exercise not only helps you look better, feel better, perform better (ahem, if you know where we’re coming from) and burn off all that sugar that could lead to grim health conditions from type two diabetes to heart disease, but it also helps with cognitive function too. It can, in short, help stave off dementia. There’s a phyiscal reason for this: reduced insulin means the brain releases more growth factors - chemicals in the brain that help build healthy new cells, more robust blood vessels to keep them active, and better clearing out of the old, dead ones. Experts at Harvard University recommend aerobic exercise - anything that gets your heart pumping. How much? About half an hour a day should do it. Come on, that’s not even one episode of Peaky Blinders! We can all sacrifice that for the good of our mental health, right?
Be a creative tourist
Nothing stimulates the mind like new experiences. And nothing’s guaranteed to deliver new experiences better than travel. But not all travel is created equal. Chances are two weeks lying horizontal in an all-inclusive resort in Magaluf isn’t going to instantly confer Mensa-status membership on you. But a weekend in a new city, soaking up the local culture, just might nudge you in the right direction. Catch a train to somewhere you’ve never been before. Dive into the galleries (great art can fire-up your emotions like few other things in life), go see a band you’ve never heard of. Try and order coffee and a croissant on a long weekend in Tallinn. A weekend in one of Europe’s grand old capitals is like bathing in a huge trough of beauty and can stimulate you more than any stag weekend in Blackpool ever could.
Try: Travel Spin
You know what they say - crap in, crap out. Sugary foods, can make you less able to retain new information, according to a study by UCLA - it enhances inflammation, oxidative stress and cell toxicity. But eating a diet that’s high in omega 3 fatty acids (think salmon, seeds and spinach), reduces insulin spikes, and lowers inflammation. Your brain will thank you for a low sugar diet, and a diet that’s rich in antioxidants: the good stuff found in berries, but also (hurrah) in dark chocolate and red wine. And eat the rainbow - try to get as much colour variety as possible, from blueberries to carrots, greens to yellow peppers. Food in its most natural state is better too - so go for brown rice instead of white, and green tea instead of (oxidized) black.
And the final tip? Sleep. It’s the best insurance we’ve got to guard against that fuzzy headed fog that can lead to feeling miserable, lethargic and even depressed. Chances are, if you’re not getting enough, your cognitive skills are suffering as a result.