Cognitive Fitness: A New Trend to Recognize and Incorporate in Your Wellness Program
By Kristi Dickinson Director of Spa & Wellness, Rancho Valencia Resort & Spa | March 22, 2020
Mental wellness is a new concept generating quite a buzz. It is distinct from mental health, focusing both on preventing mental and emotional disorders and maximizing cognitive potential. More than 16 million people in the United States are living with cognitive impairment and the number is rising.
In the coming years we will see an increased need for services addressing the "mind" aspect of wellbeing. The demand for which is being driven by our modern high-stress, low human connection society.
There is a growing body of research in evidence-based lifestyle modifications such as exercise, nutrition, community and challenging activities that have the potential to improve cognitive "fitness". These interventions expand the brain in structure (i.e. the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex) and at a cellular level (i.e. promoting neuron growth, creating new synapses and boosting the production of proteins essential for memory).
Wellness spas are well positioned to innovate and offer more variety and creativity in reaching guests interested in fine-tuning their cognitive abilities. These powerful interventions are useful not only for improving general health but also for enhancing brain chemistry. We can show guests how to improve longevity and decelerate mental aging, tapping into the brain's amazing capacity for positive change.
A wonderful book called "Boost Your Brain " by Majid Fotuhi, M.D. Ph.D talks about The Core Four ways to grow your brain: Build synapses, bolster the brain's highways, nourish and grow blood vessels, and promote the development of neurons. Fotuhi discusses how a bigger brain is critical to peak mental fitness in three main ways: Memory, Clarity and Creativity.
Cognitive stimulation helps the hippocampus (which plays a major role in learning and emotions) grow and increase levels of BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), a critical protein in the formation of long-term memory. A larger network of connectivity (synapses, neural highways, blood vessels and neurons) in the brain improves creativity and the ability to solve abstract problems in the cortex, the area of the brain where higher cognition takes place.
In 2016 the Global Wellness Institute established The Mental Wellness Initiative to learn more about mental wellness and the higher potential of human development. They released a whitepaper in 2018 containing a section on Neuroplasticity written by, Lawrence Choy MD. Neuroplasticity refers to the brain's ability to continuously alter its structure and function throughout your lifetime. Choy notes that "we now have substantial evidence to explain how wellness habits promote our brain to change and rewire itself. The strengthening and integration of the neural connections in the higher-level brain regions, particularly the prefrontal cortex, are fundamental in the benefits of wellness practices."
The GWI's Mental Wellness Initiative research suggests there are multiple pathways to mental wellness such as fitness, social interaction, outlook, sleep, nutrition, and managing stress. With the awareness and knowledge of these practices, we can increase the variety of our wellness offerings and make a more meaningful impact on our guests' lives.
Fitness & Activities
Exercise has many preventative benefits, from increasing BDNF to improving blood and oxygen flow to the brain. Myelin is an insulating sheath around the axon of the neuron which increases the speed at which messages are conducted. Oxygen is essential to the helper cells which keep the myelin intact. Physical exercise boosts oxygen flow to the brain and optimizes these highways. Exercise also helps create new mitochondria that in turn generate new cells, synapses and small blood vessels.
Incorporation: Guest should strive for at least 30 minutes of blood-pumping cardio five days per week and 5-15 minutes of strength training three days per week. Leading brands such as Equinox have introduced a clever fitness class called "Headstrong" that utilizes neuroplasticity concepts in a 4-step group workout (Focus, Adapt, Willpower and Reboot), which aids in memory and learning.
It is also possible to grow and strengthen your brain's physical structure through exercises, creating cognitive fitness. The brain has an amazing ability to change and adapt based on the 'exercises' it is given. Help guests flex memory muscles with puzzles such as Sudoku, crosswords, and board games involving strategy.
Relationships & Connection
Socializing requires our brains to engage multiple neural networks. Every interaction with a human forces us to think and respond quickly detecting, decoding, and interpreting the exchange so that we can give an appropriate response. Our memory is engaged to determine context and assign meaning to the communication. Some researchers are even asserting that social interaction is the single most effective lifestyle modification one can make to bring about significant improvement in cognitive ability.
Incorporation: Focus on building community at your property. This can be through orchestrated social events such as tennis tournaments, group fitness classes or cooking workshops. It can also be through thoughtful design such as communal dining tables and inviting great rooms and open spaces to encourage interaction and intellectually stimulating conversations. For double the benefit, create opportunities to make connections while experiencing something new like a drum circle, dancing or art class. Learning a new activity and challenging the brain creates new synapses and neural pathways.
Attitude & Happiness
At Rancho Valencia, we invite our guests to pause and intentionally bring joy into each day. This simple practice can alter brain activity and create an automatic positive response to life challenges. Just thinking about happy times boosts serotonin levels in the brain. Serotonin is essential for the proper functioning of your prefrontal cortex, which governs self-reflection and the regulation of emotions, helping it to override old negative patterns.
Incorporation: Partner with local psychotherapists to offer workshops on positive psychology or host a book signing by an author who specializes in the science of happiness. Another subtle, but powerful, layer to add to the guest experience is training your management team in positive psychology. Creating a culture of positivity and resiliency in your workforce is not only impactful to the guest experience but also boosts the productivity of your team.
Sleep is prime time not only for the repair and maintenance processes of the brain, but also for memory consolidation. Poor sleep shrinks the hippocampus and leads to unhealthy decisions in other areas such as choosing junk food and skipping a workout. Sleep deprived people also tend to have higher stress levels and tense relationships. Are we seeing how this is all interrelated?
Incorporation: Many spa therapies such as manual lymph drainage, contrast hydrotherapy and calming aromatherapy treatments promote sleep. Encourage guests to unplug an hour before bed, as bright light is one of the primary signals to our brain that it's time to be awake and alert. Some hotels are offering sleeping bags for tech devices and guest room lighting that automatically dims in the evening. Thoughtful amenities such as sleep masks and lavender essential oil diffused at turndown can promote restful sleep as well. MGM Resorts are garnering a premium room rate for their Stay Well Suites which incorporate sleep-promoting design elements.
Plant-based foods may help slow cognitive decline. Choose foods rich in vitamin K, lutein, folate and beta carotenes such as spinach, carrots, sweet potatoes and leafy greens. Foods containing flavonoids such as berries and apples increase bloodflow to the brain, boost BDNF, and create new nerve cells. Omega-3s, ideally from fatty fish or flaxseed oil, have been linked to lower blood levels of beta-amyloid, the toxic protein that creates synapse-damaging results in the brains of people with Alzheimer's Disease. Nuts such as walnuts and pistachios are rich in omega-3s as well. Pecans and pistachios also contain choline which increases the memory-related neurotransmitter, acetylcholine.
Incorporation: Develop special brain boosting menus and cooking classes. Send guests home with easy recipes and snack ideas. Banquet menus meant to boost meeting productivity will certainly catch the eye of the meeting planner.
When we are stressed, our adrenal glands release cortisol, which is a natural response as part of the fight-or-flight mechanism. Persistent elevated brain cortisol levels interfere with memory, raise blood pressure, make it more difficult to sleep and create an inflammatory environment associated with decreased cognitive functioning. Stress also causes neurons in the prefrontal cortex to shrink and lose connections and reduced BDNF levels.
Incorporation: Meditation strengthens the neural highways, creates more synapses, improves blood flow to the brain, increases the size of the hippocampus, and boosts BDNF. Dedicated meditation studios are popping up across the country almost as fast as yoga studios. Add meditation classes to your group class schedule and consider a membership-based model to ensure the consistency to develop a routine and noticeable results. Social isolation has also been linked to increased susceptibility to stress. Offering these classes in a membership model adds a community aspect to build resiliency to stress.
Developing relationships with psychotherapists and neuroscientists is advisable. They not only lend notoriety to your program but can also create in-depth workshops to boost retreat business and attract corporate groups looking for tailored cognitive fitness programs. Affiliation with licensed medical professionals is also an important resource for the guests you might encounter who have more serious mental challenges and need medical care.
Our goal in the wellness industry is to increase longevity and help our guests thrive on every level; physical, emotional and mental. By increasing their cognitive fitness, we hope our guests will reach their new maximum potential, previously unimagined. This sense of personal empowerment will deepen their emotional connection with your wellness spa, and create a relationship spanning an even longer lifetime.
I encourage you to consider the mental wellbeing of your guests and team members as you evolve your offerings in this year. You will be pleased with not only the expansion of their potential, but that of your organization as well.
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