4 neuroscience-backed morning routines

Your morning routine might include a cup of coffee and some scrambled eggs, but it might not be activating your neural pathways to boost your productivity, memory, creativity or enthusiasm for the day.

Here are 4 neuroscience-backed ways to take your morning routine to the next level.

1. Go for a walk – or three

We all know that exercise releases endorphins that cause the brain and body to become more alert and energetic. But according to the British Journal of Sports Medicine, you don’t need to be a marathon runner or Peloton owner in order to kick-start your day.

Something as simple as walking has been shown to improve memory and cognition, but not in the traditional way, where exercise is blocked out into a sectioned-off part of one’s day. In this study, “sedentary overweight/obese older adults with the normal cognitive function” compared sitting and exercising to uninterrupted sitting.

The exercise came in the form of 30 minutes of “moderate-intensity walking,” and sitting for 30 minutes with a small 3-minute interruption of light walking. Cogstate, a cognitive abilities test, was performed to assess “psychomotor function, attention, executive function, visual learning and working memory.” Additionally, a “brain-derived neurotrophic growth factor serum” was assessed at six points throughout the experiment.

Researchers found that working memory and executive function were improved with exercise, especially with those who conducted a brisk 30-minute walk first thing in the morning. The neurotrophic growth factor also increased in those who exercised first thing in the morning, but only when one’s 30-minutes of sitting were interlaced with a 3-minute walking break.

So that being said, if you’re taking a morning walk, you’re already on the right track. But without continuing to stretch your legs every thirty minutes, your neurons won’t be growing, sustaining, and firing at as rapid of a rate as they could be.

2. Eat breakfast – or don’t

For children and adolescents, breakfast every morning is a must. In fact, Frontiers in Human Neuroscience states that “increased frequency of habitual breakfast was consistently positively associated with academic performance,” and “some evidence suggested that quality of habitual breakfast was positively related to school performance.”

But what about adults? Can a nice wholesome breakfast give us more brainpower throughout the day, just like we learned in lower school?

Advances in Nutrition, in a study from 2016, says perhaps not. Their review of 38 studies, each that studied the “acute cognitive impact of breakfast,” revealed findings that suggest though “healthy adults show a small but robust advantage for memory from consuming breakfast,” other facets of the cognitive experience, such as attention, motor and executive function, and language all vary.

There’s also a portion of the literature that deals with glucoregulation, the very delicate process of regulating one’s blood sugar. Those findings tend to emphasize how glucoregulation isn’t necessarily built into the research designs, and that perhaps it should be, as it seems to be the missing link in the discourse on breakfast.

Ultimately, though memory seems to be very slightly impacted by breakfast eating, what matters is that you do the same thing every day, or at least something similar, in order for your body’s blood sugar levels to remain relatively stable. The most important thing for your brain is that your blood sugar level doesn’t spike or tank, so if you’d rather have a small bowl of fruit or a large cup of tea for breakfast every morning, just make sure that your choices turn into a routine rather than a last-minute decision.

3. Quiet

Ted Talks on Steve Jobs or Albert Einstein will be the first to tell you about how important a morning meditation practice is if you want to become a thoughtful yet powerful genius. But the reality is that a little peace and quiet to start your day, no matter how directive-oriented, will give you a little time to process your day.

In an article from Scientific American, the early research of Dr. Marcus Raichle, an eminent neurologist, outlines some of the benefits of a little quiet time.

In the 1990s, Dr. Raichle’s research began to show that “particular set of scattered brain regions consistently became less active when someone concentrated on a mental challenge but began to fire in synchrony when someone was simply lying supine in an fMRI scanner, letting their thoughts wander.”

This act of free association is now known as the default mode network, one of five states your brain engages in at rest.

Enlivening this network with silent downtime has been shown to give the brain a chance “to make sense of what it has recently learned, to surface fundamental unresolved tensions in our lives and to swivel its powers of reflection away from the external world toward itself.”

Without these moments that allow us the ability to craft fictionalized scenarios in our heads, create dialogue to relieve the tension of awkward interpersonal encounters or dream about the future, the brain has no time to play, and consequently, no time to problem-solve. Having a little time to do this in the morning can ignite one’s creativity and problem-solving abilities for the remainder of their day.

4. A to-do list – the right way

The last thing on this list may be the most dreaded by some who already have these little notes piling up on their desks or in their smartphones: the to-do list.

A 2011 study from Florida State University emphasizes how to-do lists relieve stress rather than stimulating it. An unfulfilled task might stick in your mind, the study notes – this is a phenomenon called the Zeigarnik effect. The researchers’ hypothesis was that “contributing to goal pursuit through plan-making could satisfy the various cognitive processes that usually promote goal pursuit.”

They found that unfinished goals with no plan of action intrusively entered into the minds of participants over the course of unrelated tasks, causing poor performance of the task and high mental accessibility of goal-related words (as in one is easily reminded of the unfinished goal). This Zeigarnik effect is due to a level of activation in the bilateral hippocampus, the area of the brain that’s responsible for memory.

On the flip side, goals written down on a to-do list that “allowed participants to formulate specific plans for their unfulfilled goals” eradicated essentially all of the interference when doing unrelated tasks.

“Once a plan is made, the drive to attain a goal is suspended,” the study says, even if you haven’t actually executed your plan.

So if your to-do lists are causing you more trouble than they’re worth, there’s a chance you’re doing them wrong. Without making a plan of action for the day, reviewing what needs to be done and how you’ll be doing it, the unfinished goal will haunt you the entire day, diminishing the quality of your work.