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Published on: June 25, 2014
by Erin Hill for Parade:
Now that summer is finally here, kids are bursting with energy to get outside. And although parents love to keep their kids healthy and active, the issue on a lot of families’ minds is how to keep their kids safe when it comes to sports.
Parade.com recently spoke with Dr. Majid Fotuhi, neurologist and author ofBoost Your Brain. As the founder and Chief Medical Officer of the NeurExpand Brain Center, Dr. Fotuhi has teamed up with Pop Warner Little Scholars and DSM Nutritional Products for the Eat Smart, Play Safe campaign, which educates families about the foods, beverages, vitamins, and nutrients kids need to stay fueled on the field and nourished when hitting the books.
Dr. Fotuhi, who has two young daughters (seven and nine), talked to Parade.comabout best practices for keeping kids’ brains healthy.
And after a survey of Pop Warner parents and coaches revealed that one of the top youth sports injury concerns is head injury, he shared what parents should watch out for when it comes to protecting their kids from this concern.
What are some tips for promoting a healthy brain in kids?
“There is a concept called brain reserve, which means that at any given time, your brain has neurons and synapses, and there is a baseline of neurons and synapses that most people have, billions and trillions of them, but these neurons and synapses can increase in number or decrease in number based on your lifestyle choices. In order to increase the number of neurons and synapses in your brain, you have to do certain things, like physical exercise. Increasing your cardiovascular fitness translates into generations of new neurons in the memory parts of your brain and that’s incredible.
“When you exercise, you have more brain cells. This is not hypothetical; this has been shown to exist in animals and in humans. So exercise is the one thing that boosts the generation of new neurons. Another thing that’s really important for generation of neurons and synapse is learning: new hobbies, new games, and new languages. To put it simply, a brain reserve is like your retirement account — the more you put into it, the more you have when you get to your seventies and eighties.
“I educate parents that they really need to nurture the development of a strong brain reserve in their children. With that in mind, it’s important that kids exercise, that they do not develop obesity, and that they are fit. Concussion is bad for the brain, it does cause injury to the brain, it does reduce your brain reserve, and it should be avoided. However, you can’t go to the extreme on either end. It would not make sense to stop physical activities with the fear of concussion. Obviously, if you play football, you need to be mindful of head-to-head clashes. I encourage parents to have their children be very physically active. You really want your kids to be able to exercise and not get short of breath with ten minutes of soccer. They really need to run and do things that come naturally to them; the worst thing for them to do is to sit around and simply play video games.”
Would you advise parents against letting their kids play football?
“I think there is an increase of awareness among parents and coaches about how to play football so that you don’t have head-to-head clashes. You’re supposed to use your shoulders to hit the other person’s shoulders and there will be penalties if there are head-to-head clashes. If I were to put my kid on a football team, I would make sure that the coach is aware of these things and then have my kid wear a helmet and enjoy the game. It’s such a fascinating, wonderful game, I wouldn’t oppose it, but I would oppose coaches who promote the old-fashioned line, ‘Be a man.’ You have to be smart and play the game with brain safety in mind.”
As a father of two girls, how have you implemented an active lifestyle at home?
“If the weather is nice, we will play tennis together and go swimming or biking. During the school year, they are part of the soccer team and now that it’s summer, they go to tennis camp. We also have a basketball hoop outside and we play that or hit a tennis ball in the driveway, and on weekends we’ll go biking or hiking and we garden; we just do things together. It’s important for parents to be involved in playing with their kids. Let them be the kids they are and join in their world.”
What are some good brain foods for kids?
“One of the things that is extremely important is avoiding obesity. I always recommend a low-carb diet. You don’t want your kids eating junk food, like fries, cookies, and excessive amounts of ice cream. In our house, my wife has a full plate of fruit on the table and we snack on peaches and pears and for dessert we have watermelon. We really rarely eat high-carb desserts, not that we never eat it, but we’re very mindful of the size of the cake we’d eat at a birthday party.
“My little girls have been educated as well, so they understand how excessive amounts of high-carbs contribute to obesity. We do eat carbs, but it’s in low amounts and we have high proteins, but lots of fruits and vegetables. I love that my girls love healthy foods.”
What are some best practices for adults when it comes to their own brain health?
“My first recommendation is to move. They say sitting is the new smoking. If your job requires you to sit around, make sure that outside your job you participate in activities that move your body. This could be going for a walk, joining a volleyball team; one of my particular fun activities is dancing. My wife and I do ballroom dancing. In fact, we do some competitive tango dancing.
That’s particularly good because it mixes physical activity with brain activity and socialization. Number two would be to eat a heart healthy diet. Number three is to be curious; have an inquisitive mind. When you go somewhere new or see something new, dig in and try to learn something because when you learn something new, you create new synapses.
And lastly is stress reduction. Stress is toxic; cortisol levels go up when you’re stressed and things like meditation decrease cortisol levels. Your brain is constantly changing and how good of shape your brain is in has to do with your choices. You can be proactive in building a stronger, bigger brain.”
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