Brain-Training Tips From a Top Sports Doctor
Aug 01, 2023 Cassie Tomlin
If you’re seeking to sharpen your skills, perform your best or just feel better, you might roll your eyes at the same old advice: Get some exercise, fix your sleep and take deep breaths.
But according to Vernon Williams, MD, the director of the Center for Sports Neurology and Pain Management at the Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute, these familiar measures, along with targeted mind games, are the key to improving and building skills.
Williams, who is also a team neurologist for the Los Angeles Rams, prescribes such methods to athletes who hope to get faster or build accuracy, patients who experience brain fog after a concussion, and professionals and students looking to level up. But anyone can benefit from these standard interventions, he said.
Here, Williams shares the science behind how these strategies support brain function and can even improve one’s mood and quality of life.
“These principles benefit a whole spectrum of people who want to be better than well,” he said. “Everybody has the potential to improve.”
Flex your brain
For athletes seeking a competitive edge on the field or court, working out the brain matters just as much as working out the body, Williams said.
He assesses each patient’s baseline cognitive strength and goals and prescribes “brain-training” exercises—timed, repetitive and increasingly challenging activities designed to improve reaction time, attention span or memory. Often, athletes sacrifice speed for accuracy—curated training can help them prioritize both, according to Williams.
The objective of brain training, which can be performed on a smartphone or a computer, is to increase neuroplasticity—the brain’s ability to grow and adapt—which is associated with stronger focus and concentration. Williams said he can optimize training with heartrate monitors that indicate a person’s stress levels during training, which informs him when to increase the difficulty of the tasks.
Some studies show that brain-training modules designed to improve a specific element of the mind—like attention span or visual-processing speed—work broadly to improve general cognitive function.
“The amazing thing is that often the performance doesn’t only improve on that task; we see improvements outside of the practice,” Williams said.
Challenge your body
Among the many reasons the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends adults get at least 150 minutes a week of moderate intensity exercise is that movement protects against cognitive decline.
Both aerobic exercise and strength training have been shown to stimulate the brain to manufacture small molecules that support the growth of neurons and to increase neuroplasticity, translating to improvements in learning and memory.
“This is an opportunity to contribute to cognitive health that doesn’t require any device or intervention.”
While exercise builds physical strength and helps enhance the mind, it also inspires both immediate and long-term improvements to mood, Williams said.
“Evidence shows that people who are feeling foggy, anxious or depressed can really benefit from exercise,” he said. “This is an opportunity to contribute to cognitive health that doesn’t require any device or intervention.”
Get enough sleep
Consistent, uninterrupted sleep is critical to a healthy nervous system—which translates to improved visual and cognitive performance, Williams said.
“If you wake up in the morning and you’re not feeling refreshed or recovered, chances are you didn’t sleep well,” he said. “I often tell people that improving sleep is the most important intervention you can make.”
Sleep is rest for the body, but it is not “down time” for the brain. During slow-wave sleep—the deepest part—electrical activity slows down, and brain cells clear toxic proteins associated with the development of neurodegenerative diseases.
“We’re beginning to understand that this house cleaning is critically important in terms of cognitive function,” Williams said. “Even one night of poor sleep can have a significant effect the next day on general cognitive function and reaction time, as well as the important protective effect on longevity.”
Practice controlled breathing
Slow, even breathing techniques have been shown to balance the autonomic nervous system, which regulates heart rate and blood pressure and controls the body’s response to stress.
Williams often talks with patients about “coherent breathing”—5- to 6-second inhales and exhales—which helps “quiet” the autonomic response.
One study analyzed MRI results from people who practiced such breath control for four weeks. It found changes in their brain activity that correlated with a reduction in anxiety.
Breath-control practices can also reduce the stress hormone cortisol, which can effectively improve performance but can also improve quality of life, in general, Williams said.
“These strategies don’t just improve physical or cognitive performance—there are clearly mood-related effects, too, for difficult-to-treat issues like depression and anxiety,” he said. “There are so many things you can do, without a prescription, to improve the way your brain works.”