Habits can make or break us. Cambridge Dictionary defines a habit as “something that you do often and regularly, sometimes without knowing that you are doing it.” Good habits set us down the path of success in all parts of life, while bad habits can take years (even decades) to break. As the school year approaches, it is important to focus on habits that affect our brains. Equally important is separating the good habits from the bad habits. But first, let us look at some science behind how habits are formed.
The Science of Habits
Psychologists discovered that habits work in what is called the habit loop: cue, craving, response, and reward. Habits are triggered by a cue. A cue can be many things – locations, emotions, smells, etc. – and cause us to feel a craving – something we want because of that cue. Usually, we respond to these cravings (the response) – maybe with an action or even just a thought – to satisfy them. Once we respond and finally get that thing we wanted, the craving is satisfied with a feeling of reward. It is this feeling of reward that makes us continue these actions repeatedly until they become our regular routine. For example, maybe getting home from work or school – the cue – makes us crave a snack. It has been a while since lunch and might be some time until dinner, so you usually grab a quick bite to eat at that time. In response to the craving, you grab your favorite snack right out of the pantry. Once you eat the snack, you feel satisfied and not as hungry as before – the reward. The habit itself is neither negative nor positive. Depending on the snack we grab, the habit can be either healthy or unhealthy. For better or worse, habits can affect all aspects of our health – including our brains.
Habits and The Brain: The Bad and the Good
Certain habits – our activity level, our nutrition, our sleep, our screen time, our mental health, and our social health – can both help or hurt our brain health and development. Just like all things, it is important to sort out the positive from the negative. Here are a few habits that both parents and students can improve on before the new school year to have our brains at their best health!
Research shows that sitting for too long can change a certain section of the brain in charge of new memories, called the medial temporal lobe. Keeping active can help reduce this section of the brain, which can reduce the risk of cognitive decline and dementia. Additionally, staying active can cause the brain to produce hormones that help improve mood and brain health. This doesn’t just mean exercising – being active is anything that gets you moving! No matter what, make sure you are finding something that gets you moving throughout the day: going for a walk, parking further away in the parking lot, gardening, doing some chores in the house, taking the stairs instead of the elevators, and so on!
Proper nutrition can aid brain growth, influence behavior, and regulate mood. What we eat can affect how we feel and how we act – all of which are controlled by our brains. To promote healthy nutritional habits, doctors suggest serving all food groups, making sure to eat breakfast, limiting sugary treats, and involving kids in meal prep. Nutrition doesn’t mean just food. It also includes getting enough water! Be sure to stay hydrated throughout the day as dehydration can cause our brain function to decrease – sometimes as quickly as two hours.
Research shows that when we get less than seven hours of sleep per night, cognitive skills start to decline. For kids, it is recommended to get nine hours of sleep. When we are tired, our brains can struggle with certain things such as memory, reasoning, and problem-solving. Making sure we get to bed early and get enough hours of sleep can keep our brains working at their best. This also means limiting late-night screen time. Children who limited screen time, were physically active every day and got nine to 11 hours of sleep at night scored highest when measuring memory, attention, language, skills, planning and mental processing.
Humans are social creatures, and socializing can be beneficial for both our social and mental health. The outer layer of the brain, called the gray matter, processes information. People who are less socially active lose this layer of the brain at a higher rate, which can increase the chance of Alzheimer’s disease and cognitive decline. Making sure we socialize beyond school and work can help keep our brains healthy. Call and text your family members and close friends, create weekly zoom meetings, join a group of people who meet up to discuss a hobby – anything that gets you around other people!
We all know that habits can drive our mental health, either positively or negatively. If we put ourselves in a position to reinforce our good habits and break our bad ones, it will go along way in heading down the path of success in all parts of life. Don’t let the bad habits break you!
Written by: Daniel Delgado-Health Educator, Candor Health Education