Your energy level isn’t the only thing about your body that varies over the course of the day.
Your brain obeys its own rhythm, too–based largely on your sleep pattern, exposure to light, and genetic makeup–and getting in a groove with its tempo can make you healthier, happier, and more productive. For example: “Since adults over 40 are generally morning types, they would most likely score better on an IQ test at 9 AM than at 4 PM,” says Lynn Hasher, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto.
As cutting-edge research by Hasher and other brain experts shows, you can burn more calories from exercise, work more efficiently, and even have better sex by learning how to synch up to your brain’s power hours. Here’s your daily guide.
PRIME TIME FOR: Passion
“The perfect moment for bonding with your spouse is right when you wake up,” says Ilia Karatsoreos, PhD, a neuroscientist at Rockefeller University. The reason: Levels of oxytocin (known as the “love hormone” to some) are sky-high upon waking, explains Karatsoreos, making it the best time for intimacy of all kinds.
TAP INTO IT:
- Make love or cuddle
- Remind your partner how much you love him
- Call your child at college (so long as it’s not the weekend!)
- Write a thank-you note to a friend or relative
These are the hours to strengthen your relationship with the most important people in your life. And if you wake up feeling frisky and need more than just cuddling, there’s good news. Your husband’s brain is on nearly the same wavelength; British researchers found high morning oxytocin levels in men–whether they were age 25 or 70–that gradually decreased as the day wore on.
PRIME TIME FOR: Creativity
Your brain now has moderate levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which in reasonable amounts can actually help your mind focus, says Sung Lee, MD, secretary of the International Brain Education Association. It’s present at any age: A University of Michigan study found that college students and retired adults were mentally quick in the morning–but among older subjects, sharpness declined in the afternoon.
TAP INTO IT:
- Develop a new idea
- Write a presentation
- Brainstorm solutions to challenges large or small
- Have an important conversation with your doctor
Take on tasks that require analysis and concentration. “From middle age on, you’re more alert early in the day,” says Carolyn Yoon, PhD, an associate professor of marketing at the University of Michigan who worked on the study. Schedule discussions that involve personal or family matters, as others will be sharp during these hours as well.
PRIME TIME FOR: Tough Tasks
By now, levels of the sleep hormone melatonin have dipped sharply from their late evening and early morning peaks. This means you’re more ready to take on a load of projects, according to German researchers: Last year, they found that reaction time and the ability to accomplish several to-dos were strong in the middle of the day.
TAP INTO IT:
- Tackle your errand list, voice mails, or e-mails
- Give a presentation to a client or boss
- Iron out a tough problem with your spouse
Tear through your to-dos: Because of your mental quickness, this time of day is best for doing. One warning: Cross items off your list one at a time, says René Marois, PhD, an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at Vanderbilt University. Attempts to juggle tasks put additional demands on your brain, he says. Faster reaction time can also help you respond briskly to your husband’s retorts during a dispute.
PRIME TIME FOR: A Break
To digest your lunch, your body draws blood away from your brain to your stomach, says Lee. Aim to eat a lunch closer to 2 PM, as the midday meal can make you wish there were a couch close by. Your body’s circadian rhythm (the biological “clock” that regulates sleep and wakefulness) is also in a brief down phase during this time, according to a recent Harvard study.
TAP INTO IT:
- Meditate or pray
- Read a magazine, the newspaper, or Web sites
- Go for a brisk stroll
Take this time for yourself: Steer clear of work-related material and peruse your favorite publications instead. If you’re at work and need to fight off drowsiness, Lee suggests a quick walk around the block or drink of water–both will get your blood moving away from your stomach and toward your head. “Water increases vascular volume and circulation, promoting blood flow to your brain,” he says.
PRIME TIME FOR: Collaboration
“The brain is pretty fatigued by now,” says Paul Nussbaum, PhD, an adjunct associate professor of neurological surgery at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and author of Your Brain Health Lifestyle. That doesn’t mean you’re stressed, however: University of Michigan scientists found that cortisol levels usually decline in women by late afternoon.
TAP INTO IT:
- Brainstorm with coworkers
Although you’re not as mentally sharp as earlier, you’re more easygoing, so plan a low-pressure meeting for now. If you’ve already left work, pick an activity that is as different from your job as possible, suggests Nussbaum. Exercise is a perfect one: Studies show that grip strength, manual dexterity, and other physical skills are at their strongest by the evening–but if you work out too late, the residual adrenaline can interfere with sleep. A gym session right before dinner solves the problem.
PRIME TIME FOR: Personal Tasks
Between these hours, researchers have found that the mind enters something called “wake maintenance,” when its production of sleep-friendly melatonin is at an all-day low. As a result, chances of getting tired now are next to none. Studies also show that your tastebuds are lit up during these hours because of circadian variations in hormone levels.
TAP INTO IT:
- Run errands
- Clean a long-overdue room in your house
- Enjoy quality time with your family members
- Make a delicious meal
Keep your energy up by exposing yourself to the last of the day’s serotonin-stimulating sunlight. Now may be a good time to walk the dog or walk yourself to the corner store. And because you’re now more alert but no longer at work, direct your renewed burst of mental energy toward your husband and kids, and maybe some friends; you’re bound to be pretty engaging about now.
PRIME TIME TO: Relax
There’s an abrupt transition from being wide awake to feeling sleepy as melatonin levels rise quickly, report Australian and British researchers. Meanwhile, levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter tied to perkiness, start to fade: “80% of serotonin is stimulated from exposure to daylight, so now you’re slowing down,” says Rubin Naiman, PhD, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Arizona and sleep program director at Miraval Resort in Tucson.
TAP INTO IT:
- Unwind by watching a funny movie
- Try a low-key, repetitive activity, such as knitting
Now’s the time to ease into relaxing, “mindless” activities (save the Sudoku for the morning). “By nightfall, when your brain is tired, this is a good way to bring yourself down, like walking a lap or two after a big workout,” says Naiman.
PRIME TIME TO: Hit the Sack
Your brain is looking to knit together all it learned today, which it does during sleep. Your top priority should be getting a full night’s rest. Sleep can inspire insight: In a recent study, more than half of those taught a task thought of an easier way to do it after 8 hours of sleep. Adjusting lighting can help: Dim the rooms you occupy after dinner to let your body know the day is ending, suggests Naiman. In a few hours, your brain will be ready to start all over again.
TAP INTO IT:
- Curl up with a good book
- Write in your journal
- Drift off while reading something you want to remember in the morning
Whatever helps you get to sleep–and it may take adjustments over time–follow your routine consistently. Just make sure you sign off early enough so you get the National Sleep Foundation’s recommended 7 to 9 hours of shut-eye.
Your ideal time of day for working out “depends on if you’re a morning lark or a night owl,” says neuroscientist Ilia Karatsoreos, PhD. According to researchers, there are at least two distinct chronotypes, a term that describes your body’s response to circadian rhythms and in large part determines your optimal exercise hour. Want to switch yours? If you’ve never been a morning workout person but that’s the only time you can do it, convert with these tips from Prevention’s fitness director, Michele Stanten:
1. Exercise with a friend–you’re less likely to hit the snooze button if it means standing up someone.
2. Lay out your gym attire the night before. Some people even sleep in their workout clothes!
3. Keep a similar sleep and wake schedule on the weekends, to avoid slipping out of routine come Monday morning.
4. Put your alarm clock across the room, so you’re forced to get out of bed to turn it off.
5. Cancel your newspaper delivery so you’ll have to walk (briskly) to the store in the morning to pick it up, as one Prevention reader did.
Keep Your Brain Firing on all Cylinders!
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Issue Date: June 2008 Copyright 2008, Prevention