2021 resolutions: how to reboot your brain

Special guests Giles Yeo and Barbara Sahakian have some tips for how to make - and keep - a resolution...
12 January 2021

Interview with 

Giles Yeo & Barbara Sahakian, University of Cambridge


Cartoon of the brain.


Many of us are in the first few weeks of trying to keep our new year’s resolution. Special guests Giles Yeo and Barbara Sahakian had some tips for Phil Sansom on how to make them and keep them. First - has Giles made a resolution this year?

Giles - You know, I think I'm perfect. So I am not going to... no, that's not true. I do have a resolution actually, particularly since we've hit lockdown number three. It was far easier for me to maintain my exercise when I was commuting to work, because I just got up and I commuted to work. I didn't have to say, "exercise, exercise!" Whereas now when we're not commuting, I try and recreate my commute in the morning. I wake up at half six and I go cycle around like a mad person and then come back. So my resolution is to try and stick to that through lockdown.

Phil - Interesting, okay. Barbara, how about you?

Barbara - Well if I can give a plug to my paper in the Conversation, which I wrote with Christelle Langley and Jianfeng Feng: we have six ways to reboot your brain after hard year of COVID-19, according to science. And the first one would be 'be kind and helpful', because it activates your reward system. So actually making other people happy makes yourself happy, so it's a very good thing to do. The second one is 'exercise', as Giles has just told us about, so that's very good. And that's what I call an all rounder, because it's good for your physical health, it's good for your mental health, it's good for your mood, it's good for your immune system, and it helps you live longer; so it's very beneficial. And then we were talking about, of course - with Giles here - 'nutrition'. Eating well is very important, and there's been some very large studies using the UK Biobank which show that if you have cereals without a lot of sugar in them, the sort of muesli type things, it's very good for your brain; it actually affects your brain growth and it's very beneficial for your cognition. So that's something that you can do. And then 'keeping socially connected', because it's so easy, especially with this pandemic and the lockdowns, to get isolated and to feel lonely, and that's very bad for you. So it's important, and we found that people who do keep socially connected have less depression. And then 'learn something new'; It's very important that we have lifelong learning and keep our brains active throughout our life, and drive that neurocircuitry that's in there for... includes important areas like the hippocampus, and that we know is very important for you. And finally 'sleep properly'. Have good quality and quantity of sleep. And that's great for the immune system; it's great for getting rid of toxics in the brain; and it's very important for your creativity and thinking.

Phil - These sound like resolutions that you could probably keep to as well. We've asked our listeners, via Twitter, how long they managed to stick to their new year's resolutions. And what we've found is that, of those who said, "yes, I even bother keeping it at all," about the same number said that they kept their resolution for many months as the people who did it for only a few weeks; and actually the same number only managed a few days. Is that about what you expect, and are people making resolutions that are doomed to fail - like me, a skeptic, thinks?

Barbara - I agree with you. It's partially, what are these resolutions? They have to be realistic. If you're going to suddenly do something really dramatic, it might be better to do it in small steps. But the ones that I mentioned, which would be very beneficial for people, are easy to achieve; they're not that difficult. So I think that's a good thing to do. And I think a lot of it is really just deciding that every day, if you try to do a bit of what you've suggested you're going to do, eventually it will become a regular habit for you. You won't even need to think about it; you'll just do it.

Phil - This is relevant especially for your subject Giles, because the top three - according to a recent YouGov poll, actually - the top three resolutions that people made last year were all diet or exercise related. Are people making unsustainable versions of those, and is Barbara's advice... does that apply to food and diet as well?

Giles - Oh doubtedly it does, because it's either going to be "eat less sugar"... "eat less sugar" is fine, right, but if you're going to say, "I'm going to give up sugar forever" - okay, how realistic is that going to be? "I'm going to lose 12 stone." Yeah, but you were ten stone to begin with! I don't know how realistic that is. And so I think it's all about making realistic suggestions. Barbara suggestions are fantastic, because "eat more muesli," I can do that. And I think the other thing is, particularly when you're thinking about diet or when you're thinking about weight, think about what you're trying to do. And I think too many of us think about weight per se, because we're interested in how we're looking, rather than health. So I think if we're thinking about, "I'm going to try and improve my health this year," I think that should be achievable; rather than just saying, "I want to lose all this weight". I wish I could look like Brad Pitt, but I'm not going to be able to look like Brad Pitt because of my genes and many other things.

Phil - You did say that you were perfect on the other hand Giles.

Giles - I did, I did say I'm perfect, that's me. But yeah, I agree with Barbara about being realistic and picking things that are going to be sustainable.


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