Train Your Brain to Build Vigor – Gratitude and Mindfulness

Dr. Shawn Talbott (Ph.D., CNS, LDN, FACSM, FACN, FAIS) has gone from triathlon struggler to gut-brain guru! With a Ph.D. in Nutritional Biochemistry, he's on a mission to boost everyday human performance through the power of natural solutions and the gut-brain axis.

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Here’s another excerpt from my 10th book, The Secret of Vigor – How to Overcome Burnout, Restore Biochemical Balance and Reclaim Your Natural Energy

Some of the most popular New Year’s resolutions every year are:
*Lose Weight
*Get in Shape
*Reduce Stress
*Get Healthier
*Win the Lottery

The Secret of Vigor can help you with 4 out of 5 of the most popular resolution goals, so I’ll be posting excerpts from the book for the next several weeks – so please stay tuned for each installment.

If you simply can’t wait, then you can certainly get a copy at or at your favorite library or bookstore.

Train Your Brain to Build Vigor
You’ve just gotten a great deal of technical information about the brain, stress, and biochemistry. In this closing section of the chapter, I want to give you practical ways to apply this information to your life to change your behavior and build vigor.
Let me start by telling you about the work I’ve done over the years with elite-level athletes in a variety of sports—including many professional athletes and participants in the Summer and Winter Olympic Games.

A common theme among these athletes and “peak-performance” enthusiasts is that the athletes standing on the podium not only are the athletes with the highest states of physical performance but also are the athletes with the highest states of mental performance and the highest states of biochemical balance and vigor (timed perfectly to coincide with their most important competitions). The athletes who miss the podium (or even miss qualifying for big events, such as the Olympic Games) are often those whose biochemistry is “unbalanced” and whose vigor slipped at the wrong time—leaving them fatigued, unfocused, injured, or sick and allowing a high-vigor athlete to surpass them.

Sometimes, athletes and coaches refer to this state of high vigor as “the zone” to indicate an athlete who has momentum and who is simply “floating” out of reach of his or her competition. This “zone” is hard to describe in words (just like vigor), but when you feel it, you want to maintain it (just like vigor)—and when you lose it, you want to get it back as quickly as possible (just like vigor).

In the same way that an elite athlete must properly train body and mind to reach the highest levels of performance, you, too, must “train” yourself on a daily basis to achieve your optimal state of vigor. Over the years, I have found that two “practice sessions” are particularly effective in helping people harness and direct the power of the brain to improve personal vigor—and they are well worth a few minutes of daily practice. These two approaches are quite simple and involve practicing gratitude and mindfulness.

Let me close this chapter by offering you the following tools for incorporating gratitude and mindfulness into your life to improve the quality of your health and to build vigor.

Gratitude and Mindfulness

Gratitude is the practice of focusing on what you have instead of what you lack. You may have heard the old proverb (one my grandmother used to remind me of as a child), “If you’re not thankful for what you have, you’re not likely to be thankful for what you’ll get.”

One of the easiest and most effective ways to practice gratitude is to keep a “gratitude journal” in which you write down a few thoughts every week about the things for which you are grateful. You can express your gratitude in innumerable ways from past memories, present experiences, and even future hopes. These will often be “little” things, like a sunny day or a phone call from a friend—and you should write them down (or at least think about them for a few moments, like a nightly prayer) and reflect on the details of the event and the sensations that you experienced. It might sound overly simplistic, but dozens of research studies show that those who write about gratitude feel better about their lives, are significantly more optimistic, and have higher vigor.

Mindfulness is the practice of purposely focusing your attention on the present moment so you are aware and accepting, but not judgmental, of your present circumstances.

When you are being mindful, you are able to savor your pleasurable experiences as they occur. You’re able to derive the highest level of pleasure from each and every experience through every moment of every day. You might realize that “multitasking” is the opposite of being mindful—and you’re correct. You simply cannot be mindful of anything if you’re trying to pay attention to several things at the same time—for example, eating lunch while scanning e-mail and also talking on the phone means that you’re not capable of deriving the pleasure you could from any one of these actions alone.

People who multitask on a regular basis typically report feeling “disconnected,” with lower vigor than they “should” have. But mindfulness practice can quickly restore their connection with the present and help restore their vigor. Mindfulness helps you become fully engaged in daily activities and also increases your capacity to deal with adverse events. By refocusing on the “here and now” in your daily life, mindfulness helps you worry less about the future or regret the past. You can approach mindfulness as formal meditation or less formally (as I do) when you have a moment of “downtime” (such as commuting to/from work or waiting in line).

Here are a few pointers to help you focus your attention on the present:
* Focus your attention on the sensations in your body.
* Breathe in slowly and deeply through your nose, letting your chest and abdomen expand fully.
* Breathe out slowly through your mouth, letting your chest and abdomen fall as you notice the sensations of inhaling/exhaling.
* Deliberately sense and pay attention to the task at hand—move slowly and notice the sights/smells/touch/sounds of the moment.
* If your mind wanders away from the task at hand, acknowledge it and then slowly/gently refocus your attention on the present moment.

Getting back to athletes and their ability to “train” their brains to build vigor—remember that vigor is characterized by physical energy and mental energy as well as by motivation, resilience, optimism, and engagement. These are all factors that are high in a top-level athlete and are low in a poor-performing athlete.

Numerous researchers in “sports psychology” have suggested that exercise training and mind training can increase positive emotions that can change brain levels of neurotransmitters (dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine, and the natural endorphins and endocannabinoids responsible for a “runner’s high”). This is yet another two-way street where the neurochemicals influence mood—and mood influences neurochemicals in either a positive or negative direction.

As stated earlier in this chapter, biochemistry affects the brain, which in turn affects behavior, and it all happens in an ongoing loop. By engaging in mindfulness and gratitude practices, you can turn this cycle away from behaviors that promote burnout and direct it toward building vigor.

About the Author

Exercise physiologist (MS, UMass Amherst) and Nutritional Biochemist (PhD, Rutgers) who studies how lifestyle influences our biochemistry, psychology and behavior - which kind of makes me a "Psycho-Nutritionist"?!?!

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