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more articles by Gerson, Henry D. , MD  |  author's bio

Cultivating Mental Wellness

Cultivating Mental Wellness

By Henry Gerson, MD


Our brain determines our mental life, and it requires nutrition and care to perform optimally.  We can enhance our mental and emotional functioning by supporting the brain through smart behavioral choices and healthy lifestyle practices.


How do we support brain health and mental wellness?

The basic building blocks of brain health and mental wellness are adequate nutrition, exercise, mental challenges, and good rest and relaxation.


A sensible, well balanced diet provides the metabolic energy the brain needs.  It also supports a fit and healthy body, which in turn provides the brain with proper levels of hormones and correctly regulates its supply of glucose and other vital factors.

Physical activity with complex movement and aerobic exercise supports brain function and brain tissue health.  When we move, the brain is challenged to coordinate the activity.  This challenge fortifies the connections among various parts of the brain.  Stronger connections means better performance both in physical and mental activity. 


Mental exercises work similarly, challenging the various parts of the brain to work together effectively and improve over time.


Finally good rest allows the brain to balance its activities and neurotransmitter levels.  Rest is more than just sleep.  We should have intervals throughout the day in which we relax and reverse the effects of stress.



What role does vigorous exercise play in mental wellness?

Intense aerobic exercise is important because it appears to stimulate growth and repair in the brain.  For a long time it was widely accepted that in adults, new brain cells are not formed.  Recent research has demonstrated that vigorous exercise promotes the growth of new brain cells in the hippocampus, an area essential for memory and learning.  In intense aerobic exercise, our muscles release growth factors that cross the blood-brain barrier and promote brain health.  The muscles actually can’t supply these factors, which work like “brain fertilizers,” when the body is at rest or during less vigorous exercise.  Of course, before increasing the intensity of your exercise,  be sensible – plan to work up to it slowly, and consult a physician, trainer or exercise specialist as appropriate.



What about mental exercise?

Challenges stimulate the brain.  Mental exercise such as calculations, abstract thinking, and problem solving create stronger connections and new pathways within the brain.  Situations that produce mild anxiety and mental stress also challenge us and, if we master them, will expand the brain’s capability to function optimally.  The notion that challenges make us stronger is really true. 

It’s also important to recognize when to take a break and to skillfully manage “down time” so it is as refreshing and restful as possible.


Are there tips to skillful relaxation?

Relaxation is universal, but getting to it is an individual concept. What works for one person may not work for another. You will know you have achieved relaxation when your muscle tension disappears and your anxiety goes away. Common approaches to achieve relaxation include walking, hobbies, reading, music, and, for some, household chores.  Practices like yoga, meditation, tai chi, and self-hypnosis have also been gaining popularity. You can learn to elicit the relaxation response through a focused exercise developed by Dr. Herbert Benson at Harvard University (  We teach the relaxation response in our stress management classes at the Center for Healthy Living.


How do I start working on my mental wellness?


To promote mental wellness work towards establishing a daily routine that meets the brain’s needs for nutrition, exercise, mental challenges, relaxation, and sleep. Your schedule and habits should eventually reflect this approach. A routine like this reinforces itself: you begin to feel better and better over time, and this positive state of mind leads to more good practices.


Dr. Gerson is an attending psychiatrist and member of the medical staff at Cayuga Medical Center at Ithaca. Healthy lifestyle and mental wellness programming is developed through the Cayuga Center for Healthy Living, located at the Island Health & Fitness Center.





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