Strengthening Your Executive Abilities

by , | Last updated Jan 15, 2024 | Brain Health, Mental Health

Just about everyone operates as a CEO (chief executive officer)—including you! Your prefrontal cortex operates as your CEO. It is in this area of the brain that executive processes occur that enable you to manage yourself and your resources successfully in order to accomplish your goals.

Initiation of a task, self-control, planning, organizing, mental flexibility to switch from one task or idea to another—all are located in the prefrontal cortex. Working memory, which is the capacity to hold information in the mind for the purpose of completing a task, is another executive function. Self-monitoring is the ability to monitor one’s own performance and to measure it against some standard of what is needed or expected. It is the ability to accept and weigh feedback of one’s performance.

How to Boost Executive Function Efficiency

Engage in Regular Physical Exercise

Move! Unfortunately, executive functioning declines as we age. However, individuals with higher cardiorespiratory fitness have enhanced executive function-related brain activation. Exercise increases the activity in certain brain regions that are involved in conflict monitoring, multitasking, and dual-task processing.1 In older adults this high cardiovascular fitness has been linked to better reasoning and problem solving.2

Short bouts of moderately intense exercise seem to boost self-control in children, teenagers, and young adults (ages 31-35). Regular aerobic exercise helps to improve executive function such as task switching, selective attention, and working memory, among others.3

Regular exercise improves the ability of overweight, previously inactive children to think, plan, and even do math. MRIs showed that those who exercised experienced increased brain activity in the prefrontal cortex — an area associated with complex thinking, decision making, and correct social behavior. Intelligence scores increased an average 3.8 points in those exercising 40 minutes per day after school for three months, with a smaller benefit in those exercising 20 minutes daily.4 Moderate exercise strengthens self-control in eating.5

Emphasize a Plant-Based, Whole Food Diet

Individuals who eat fruits and vegetables scored better on task initiation. Stronger self-control was associated with less consumption of high fat foods during the last 7 days prior to the test.6 Polyphenols are present in many plant foods and benefit brain health. Dietary fiber is positively linked to better cognitive control among prepubertal children.7

In a well-controlled study, a group of 242 older people with mild cognitive impairment, a higher intake of processed foods was linked to reduced memory and impaired executive function.8 Omega-3 fats can improve executive functions even in healthy men.9 Unfortunately, consumption of saturated fats and cholesterol impair mental flexibility in prepubertal children.10 The brain-derived nerve growth factor is a crucial modulator of synaptic plasticity and a predictor of learning efficacy. Other studies show that a diet high in saturated fat (HF) decreases levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) to the extent that it compromises the plasticity of synapses and cognitive function. A high-fat diet, especially saturated fats, decreased brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) levels in the prefrontal cortex.11

Not all vegetarian or plant-based diets are healthful. Skipping the meat and eating largely refined foods, ultra processed foods, and consuming sugar will hurt the heart, immune, and nervous system. If you go vegetarian or vegan, be sure you know how to plan a balanced diet. B12 and vitamin D3 supplementation may be needed.

Maintain or Reach Ideal Weight

The cognitive performance of 2,817 middle-aged adults participating in this study was assessed in 2007-2009 by using 6 neuropsychological tests. After adjusting for obesity-related cardio-metabolic parameters, higher body mass index, and large waist circumference, obesity in midlife predicted lower executive function 13 years later.12 Obesity shrinks the hippocampi, an area in the temporal lobes, involved in memory, learning, and mood regulation and shrinks the gray matter density in the front brain.13

The good news is that weight loss even in obese seniors is linked to improvements in verbal memory, verbal fluency, executive function after adjustment for education, gender, physical activity, and baseline tests.14 Click on this link https://wildwoodhealth.com/category/obesity-weight-loss/ for helpful  strategies for weight loss.

Check Vitamin D Status

Low serum vitamin D is associated with executive dysfunction as a whole. Vitamin D deficiency has been associated with poorer mental flexibility among older community dwellers with memory complaint.15 Some studies suggest that there is a causal relationship between lower active vitamin D and poorer executive function and psychomotor speed.16 In the Framingham Study, a large community-based sample, low vitamin D concentrations were linked to smaller hippocampal volume, poorer executive function, processing speed, visual-perceptual skills, and poorer neuropsychological function.17 The hippocampus plays a vital role in memory and mood regulation.

Avoid Toxins

Chronic smoking damages the prefrontal cortex. There is persistent dysfunctional frontal lobe activation in former smokers.18.

Chronic exposure to marijuana during adolescence leads to long-term structural and functional changes in the prefrontal cortex.19  Chronic use of marijuana predicts lower initiative and persistence needed for self-efficacy after adjusting for confounders such as demographics, personality traits, alcohol use, tobacco use, and self-efficacy subscales. 20

For years, we have heard of the so-called benefits of moderate alcohol consumptions. Oxford researchers discovered in a study involving more than 25,000 individuals that even moderate consumption is linked to more widespread adverse effects on the brain than previously recognized.21

Enjoy Wholesome Social Activity

People need people. According to many studies, perceived social isolation or loneliness reduce sleep quality, impair immunity, and encourage inflammation. They also impair executive function and accelerate the decline in mental abilities.22 Social isolation, social disconnectedness, and perceived isolation have been linked to an overall decline in cognitive function, memory, executive functioning, attention, and language abilities.23

A caveat is in order here. Social influences on us can be good or detrimental. A new University of Georgia study has revealed that self-control — or the lack thereof — is contagious. Researchers there have found that watching or even thinking about someone with good self-control makes others more likely to exert self-control. The researchers found that the opposite holds true also, so that people with bad self-control influence others negatively. The effect is so powerful in fact, that seeing the name of someone with good or bad self-control flashing on a screen for just 10 milliseconds changed the behavior of volunteers.24

Get Sufficient, Good Quality of Sleep

Sleep loss substantially compromises the prefrontal cortex and most strongly affects the functional connectivity of areas inside the prefrontal cortex even  in healthy men. Functional connectivity between brain areas determines the way the brain processes information.25 Treat your sleep time as a priority. Schedule it into your calendar.

Choose Your Emphasis & Perspectives

Edith’s story on Courage and Decisiveness. Dr. David DeRose shares a story that highlights the cerebrum’s contribution to mental health:26

“In 1944, at the age of 16, Edith Eger was taken by the Nazis from her home in Hungary and sent to the infamous Auschwitz death camp. Although spared the gas chambers used by her parents, the already-thin Edith gradually wasted away as she was transferred from one camp to another. In May 1945, approaching death, Edith fell into an unconscious stupor. The guards assumed she was dead and threw her into a mass grave in the woods behind the Gunskirchen Lager Camp. Miraculously, an American GI saw Edith’s hand moving amidst the corpses. He rescued the then 60-pound girl from certain death.

If anyone had reason to be controlled by her environment, it was Edith Eger. Despite her horrific experiences, Edith didn’t succumb to emotions of bitterness, hatred, or despair. She not only survived; she thrived. She married a Czech Freedom Fighter, raised three children, and earned a Ph.D. in psychology. If you ever met Dr. Edith or heard her speak, you would likely rank her among the most positive, uplifting individuals you’ve ever met. Edith’s message: “Contrary to popular belief, there are no victims in this world – only willing participants. You can’t always control your circumstances, but you can control how you respond to them.”


Day by day, the choices of lifestyle we make shape the microanatomy and even the overall structure of our frontal lobes, especially the prefrontal cortex.


© 2024, Wildwood Sanitarium. All rights reserved.

Disclaimer: The information in this article is educational and general in nature. Neither Wildwood Lifestyle Center, its entities, nor author intend this article as a substitute for medical diagnosis, counsel, or treatment by a qualified health professional.


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