Brain health is incredibly important—who doesn't want to live longer, with a healthy, sharp brain? But knowing what to do can feel a little elusive; with so much advice out there, it can be hard to know where to start. That's why I was so happy to speak to the New York Times bestselling author of Genius Foods, Max Lugavere, at this year's Destination Wellness event, where we partnered with Westin Hotels and Resorts to host a morning of movement, healthy breakfast, and wellness inspiration.
Lugavere broke down exactly how to optimize brain health during one of the most common holiday activities out there—travel. He shared the specific foods you should bring on the plane, how you should plan your travel itineraries, and how traveling itself can actually boost brain power.
Here, Lugavere debunks some of the most common myths in terms of brain health. Call it "Myth Busters" for your mind, if you will.
Myth #1: Puzzles and games are the best kind of brain workout.
While board games are commonly regarded as brain-boosting mechanisms (in fact, a recent study showed that board game playing was linked to higher cognitive functioning), it's not the best workout for your mind. According to Lugavere, the best workout for your brain is more literal than you think: Exercise itself is the best for cognitive function.
"Exercise is basically a tonic for the brain, not only in terms of your neurological health but also for your mental health," he says.
When you hit the gym, your brain rewards you with "feel-good chemicals" and proteins that promote neuroplasticity, which are crucial for cognitive function and healthy aging. Lugavere also mentions that when we're feeling especially low-energy, it's even more important to get moving.
"When we're anxious, fatigued, or feeling down, those are actually the times we should push ourselves to get to the gym," he notes. Although you might want to curl up on the couch rather than attending a HIIT session, your brain will thank you for the crucial blood flow.
Myth #2: Cardio is the best exercise for the brain.
According to Lugavere, this commonly held notion is also untrue. There's a bias, he says, about cardio's role in brain health, mainly because existing research tends to focus on cardio and aerobic exercise.
"When people think about working out, you think about getting on the treadmill," he notes. "But that doesn't mean resistance training isn't good for the brain."
That said, just because there aren't too many clinical trials on strength training and brain health, that doesn't mean this type of exercise isn't beneficial for our minds. After all, Lugavere adds, "Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence."
According to him, whatever modality of exercise you prefer, just getting yourself off the couch and moving is beneficial for brain health. Whether it's cardio, strength training, or yoga, working out itself can boost brain power, and there's no exercise hierarchy.
Myth #3: Sleep health and brain health aren't intimately connected.
We know that sleep is an essential part of our well-being, and Lugavere agrees 100%. "When you sleep, your brain is literally cleansing itself," he says.
Previous research has shown that cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) washes through the brain as we sleep, which removes waste and memory-impairing proteins. If we don't get enough sleep, that waste can build up in our brains and result in cognitive decline. And, according to Lugavere, just one night of poor sleep is enough to have a detrimental effect.
He also mentions that sleep helps regulate our energy metabolism and hunger hormones. When we experience just one night of poor sleep, we actually consume around 400 to 500 extra calories the following day, Lugavere tells me.
So, we should try to maximize sleep wherever we can, and especially when our circadian rhythms are thrown off balance when we're traveling. "Sleep is crucial, and it's free!" he adds.
Myth #4: The best breakfast for brain health doesn't include protein.
Lugavere regards protein as an essential part of your meal the first thing in the morning, especially after a workout.
"Protein serves as the backbone of your neurotransmitters," he says. "And those brain chemicals are important for everything—from learning and memory to your mood, feeling happy, and feeling a sense of reward."
Another benefit of protein is that it's incredibly satiating, so you won't feel those sometimes debilitating hunger pangs throughout the day. Protein can also help stabilize your blood sugar, which also contributes to feeling satiated for longer.
"You won't have that post-breakfast dip, where you feel like you've been hit by a train," Lugavere notes. "Whatever your favorite sources happen to be, protein is crucial."
Wherever you are in the world, you have the power to optimize your brain health as you travel. With Lugavere's expert tips, you can boost your brain health while simultaneously expanding your knowledge about new places and cultures. Arguably, both are essential for your well-being.