These 5 “productive” habits are doing your brain more harm than good – Tara Swart

MIT Sloan Senior Lecturer Tara Swart

From Fast Company

It’s probably no surprise to you that exercise, nutrition, and caffeine can have a significant impact on your brain health. You’ve probably read many articles giving you advice on how they can help your mind. You might even have adopted a habit or two.

But while certain practices seem productive in theory, they’re more likely to hamper your brain function rather than boost it. Here are 5 of those common habits, and what you can do instead:


Whenever I see joggers on city pavements, I want to stop them and tell them to stay away from the roadside and head to the gym. This is because although cardiovascular exercise is a great way to boost alertness, mood, and learning, inhaling polluted air means you may cancel out much of the benefit. Particulate matter from car exhaust is terrible for the brain–it can lead to neuroinflammation and cognitive decline.

When you inhale polluted air, it reduces levels of BDNF in the brain. BDNF is a protein that enhances brain plasticity–which improves cognition and memory performance. One study looked at BDNF levels among cyclists who rode in heavy traffic and found that the exercise led to no increase in BDNF at all.

The best alternative for urban dwellers is to head to an indoor gym–but if you don’t want to give up your outdoor run, download an air-quality app and check your route before a ride or a run. There are lots to choose from, including Air Matters, Air Visual App, and Breezometer. You can also just avoid major roads altogether, and jog on woodland trails or in park interiors instead, away from traffic and fumes.


We have become habitual grazers. People in the U.S. consume 25% of calories in snack form and rarely go for more than a few hours without something to eat. Our parents’ generation believed in the importance of working up an appetite and were cautious about “spoiling” dinner by overdoing the snacks, but we fill our work bags with nuts, fruit, and protein shakes, like explorers off on a hike.

The science on satiation and brain function is contradictory. Yes, extreme hunger can negatively impact concentration, mood, and unconscious bias, but if you’ve maintained a healthy balanced diet for some time, practicing intermittent fasting can help you build mental resilience. Look at it as a form of stress-inoculation, where you learn to withstand hunger and manage your own recovery.

We all tend to overestimate the healthiness of our diets–so in addition to fasting, you can also benefit from noting down everything that passes your lips. Keep a note too of your mental energy throughout the day, and take a look at the relationship between the two.

Read the full post at Fast Company.

Tara Swart is an executive leadership coach, medical doctor, neuroscientist and frequent keynote speaker.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *