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
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
Obesity compromises the efficiency of the front brain. 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.4Moderate 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
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.11
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.12 Some studies suggest that there is a causal relationship between lower active vitamin D and poorer executive function and psychomotor speed.13 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.14 The hippocampus plays a vital role in memory and mood regulation.
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.15)Social isolation, social disconnectedness, and perceived isolation have been linked to an overall decline in cognitive function, memory, executive functioning, attention, and language abilities.16
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.17
- 1. Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology. “Connection found between fitness level, brain activity, and executive function.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 11 September 2015. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/09/150911111037.htm
- 2. BMJ-British Medical Journal. “Short bouts of exercise boost self control.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 6 March 2013. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/03/130306221143.htm
- 3. Springer. “Aerobic exercise boosts brain power, review finds.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 13 December 2012. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/12/121213111830.htm
- 4. Davis CL. Exercise improves executive function and achievement and alters brain activation in overweight children: A randomized, controlled trial. Health Psychology, Vol 30(1), Jan 2011, 91-98
- Lowe CJ. An exploration of exercise-induced cognitive enhancement and transfer effects to dietary self-control. Brain Cogn. 2016 April
- 6. Limbers CA. Executive functions and consumption of fruits/ vegetables and high saturated fat foods in young adults. J Health Psychol. 2015 May;20(5):602-11
- Khan NA.Dietary fiber is positively associated with cognitive control among prepubertal children. J. Nutr. January 1, 2015. Vol 145. No.1 pg, 143-149
vol. 145 no. 1 143-149
- 8. Torres SJ. Dietary Patterns Are Associated with Cognition among Older People with Mild Cognitive Impairment. Nutrients. 2012 Nov; 4(11): 1542–1551
- Witte AV. Long-chain omega-3 fatty acids improve brain function and structure in older adults. Cereb Cortex.2014 Nov; 24(11):3059-68
- Khan NA. The relation of saturated fats and dietary cholesterol to childhood cognitive flexibility. Appetite.2015 Oct; 93:51-6
- Kesse-Guyot E. Overall and abdominal adiposity in midlife and subsequent cognitive function.
- Annweiler C. Hypovitaminosis D and executive dysfunction in older adults with memory complaint: a memory clinic-based study. Dement Geriatr Cogn Disord. 2014;37(5-6):286-93
- Kueider AM. State- and trait-dependent associations of vitamin-D with brain function during aging. Neurobiol Aging. 2016 Mar; 39:38-45
- Karakis I. Association of Serum Vitamin D with the Risk of Incident Dementia and Subclinical Indices of Brain Aging: The Framingham Heart Study. J Alzheimers Dis. 2016 Feb 6; 51(2):451-61
- Hawkley LC. Perceived social isolation, evolutionary fitness and health outcomes: a lifespan approach. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2015 May 26;370(1669
- Dinapoli EA. Social Isolation and Cognitive Function in Appalachian Older Adults. Research on Aging 36(2):161-79 February 2014
- University of Georgia. “Self-control, and lack of self-control, is contagious.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 18 January 2010. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/01/100113172359.htm