This is the fifth post in a six-part series focusing on the Six Dimensions of Wellness: emotional, occupational, physical, social, intellectual, and spiritual. Each post features a different dimension of wellness. This post will discuss intellectual wellness and the importance of pursuing activities that stretch your mind, expand your skills, and reinforce your memory.
Ever have moments when you feel like Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz—the lovable straw man who longs for a brain? You meet someone at a conference and 10 minutes later can’t recall their name. The CEO asks you to clarify a detail from last month’s meeting, and you can’t think of a response. You’re not alone. Remember the time your team was in “problem-solving” mode for a work project and no one could come up with a creative idea? Brain freeze.
Memory lapses don’t mean someone is in the early stages of dementia. Everyone has moments when they struggle with complex mental processing or can’t recall an important fact. The goal, though, is to minimize cognitive issues by promoting intellectual wellness. Intellectual wellness enables a person to think quickly on their feet, solve problems creatively, and remember key facts from yesterday’s meeting—or from a class they took 20 years ago. And it’s essential for a thriving, innovative workforce. Intellectual wellness powers sound decision-making, expands technological borders, enhances creativity, protects memory, stimulates curiosity, and assists in learning new skills. The result? Each individual within a workforce can contribute in meaningful ways, enrich the lives of others, and feel good about themselves and their co-workers.
The good news is that significant cognitive decline isn’t inevitable. To understand how to delay decay, it helps to understand a little about the brain. The first thing to remember is that brains are always changing. It’s called “brain plasticity.” Brains are just like the rest of the body. Exercise a brain and it gets stronger. Practice a skill and it gets better. Yes, just about the time brains reach maturity and top performance, they start to decline. It’s also true that brains take longer to mature than some might think. In fact, a person might be “adulting” for only two years before the mental slide begins. Brain development continues well into the mid-20s. That’s one reason why psychologists say adolescence extends to age 25.
The speed at which brains are able to solve puzzles, reasoning skills, and other cognitions factors start to slow at age 27, according to a seven-year study. The body gradually makes less of the chemicals brain cells (called neurons) need to work at peak performance, and they start to shrink. Over the next two decades, the gradual decline in reason, comprehension, and recall starts to be noticeable. By the mid-40s, individuals might have a few “brain fog” moments, but still be able to multitask. In the 50s and 60s, it will take a little more effort to learn new processes and multitasking might be a challenge—but both are still achievable. And if you work with a company that has an aging workforce, you can feel good knowing that they have strong creativity, wisdom, experience, and ability to understand how things work. In the absence of genetic predispositions, brain health can remain strong through the 70s and beyond when employees practice strategies for intellectual wellness. Want to keep your workforce healthy? Here are four ways to stimulate their mental wellbeing.
1. Walking breaks are good for brains
Brains require exercise and attention to stay in peak condition as long as possible. Regular physical activity improves circulation and helps prevent some of the conditions that contribute to brain deterioration, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, inflammation, obesity, and diabetes. Both meta-analysis and systematic review studies show that regular exercise helps keep brains functioning strong.
One study found that standing, walking, and cycling all improved cognitive performance when compared to sitting. Encourage employees to sit less throughout the work day to keep their brains fresh.
- Stock footbags (aka Hacky Sacks) in break rooms to encourage physical movement
- Remind employees to step away from their desks for a minute of stretching every hour or so
- Organize team play for exergames like Pokemon GO, Beat Saber, and Zombies, Run!
- Plan active employee socials, such as a kickball tournament during your company picnic and dancing at holiday parties
- Remind employees that any time is a good time to stand up and move—even when they aren’t at work
- Offer quarterly prizes for individuals who meet the minimum physical activity recommendations
Now is the time for employees to adopt active lifestyles for current and future brain health. The Nurses’ Health Study found that the more women walked in their 50s and 60s, the better their memory in their 70s. Another study involving more than 2,257 elderly men found that those walking less than a ¼-mile each day were nearly twice as likely to develop dementia as men who walked at least 2 miles a week. Walking just 90 minutes each week can make a difference; more is better.
2. MIND the food choices
Eating a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats is good for overall health and happiness. It’s also essential for mind-power. The Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay (MIND diet) protects neurons and significantly slows cognitive decline. The MIND diet emphasizes plenty of whole foods, rather than processed. Just telling employees the health benefits of eating more cruciferous vegetables (e.g., broccoli, cauliflower), green leafy veggies, beans, and nuts might not be very effective. Here are some ways to encourage a MINDful diet:
- Schedule weekly fruit, veggie, and bean potlucks
- Set out nuts, berries, and cruciferous veggies for employees to snack on
- Use posters and emails to explain the brain benefits of a healthy diet
- Require office party meals to be healthy, for example, baked salmon or grilled chicken with lots of green leafy veggies
- Start an office garden (e.g., tomatoes, peppers, lettuce)
- Create a shared cookbook filled with healthy recipes
- Gift clients and employees with healthy food baskets or fruit bouquets for special occasions or to show appreciation
Administering a health risk assessment can reveal how many in your workforce eat enough fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats. Use the HRA data to guide your suggestions for improvements.
3. There’s value in unplugging from work
Apparently neurons get tired too. According to a study by UCLA – Los Angeles Health Sciences, sleep deprivation causes brain cells to respond slowly and cause mental lapses on par with excessive drinking. Sleeping 7-9 hours each night is more than a luxury. It’s essential for intellectual wellness and mental health. Poor sleep quality and difficulty falling asleep seems to age brains more quickly. Stress, multitasking, and information overload can also negatively impact reasoning and problem-solving.
- Urge employees to take unplugged vacations – no checking work email!
- Reinforce your company policy about work breaks and lunch breaks
- Check with employees often to be sure they are not burdened with unnecessary tasks; for example, lines of communication and areas of responsibility should be clearly delineated
- Share ideas for healthy bedtime habits, including adhering to a regular sleep-wake schedule
- Work with managers to create a culture that discourages excessive overtime work
- Offer classes that teach employees to relax and manage stress
- Encourage employees to have positive social interaction with friends and family
- Volunteer together for a cause employees care about
4. Challenge individuals to keep their minds active
Work is often stimulating and informative. And that’s good for brain health—as long as it doesn’t result in an imbalanced life. The Global Council on Brain Health (GCBH) recommends engaging in brain-stimulating activities for a well-rounded mental exercise. Math equation speed drills will improve mental processing speeds, but won’t necessarily improve episodic memory (e.g., that detail from last month’s meeting that the CEO wants to know about). It takes a variety of mental challenges.
- Provide reimbursements for college course tuition
- Hold juggling classes or other activities that increase attention and spatial skills
- Challenge each other to memorize lists
- Post a new vocabulary word on a white board each week
- Put Sudoku and crossword puzzles on a white board in the lunch room so everyone can work on them
- Encourage employees to keep trying new things – like the Train Your Brain Health Challenge®
- A basic quiz for employees to see how much they know about habits for a healthy brain
- Tips on how to boost brain health
- Tricks to help them improve memory
- A calendar to track brain workouts each day
Wellsource, Inc. has been a premier provider of evidence-based Health Risk Assessments and Self-Management Tools for four decades, making us one of the longest-serving wellness companies in the industry. With a strong reputation for scientific research and validity, we offer an innovative family of products that empower wellness companies, health plans, ACOs, and healthcare providers to inspire healthy lifestyles, prevent disease, and reduce unnecessary healthcare costs. Our assessments connect lifestyle choices with healthy outcomes, measure readiness to change for maximum results, and drive informed decisions with actionable data.
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