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Brain Fitness class focuses on mindfulness and memory

By Staff | Jun 17, 2009

Students, even from a very early age, have been told by their teachers to “sit up straight” and “pay attention.”

That may be the best advice they’ve ever received, according to Lynn Wallen, instructor of a series of classes which focuses on improving memory, reducing stress and keeping our brains in top condition for the rest of our lives.

Held from 10:30 a.m. until noon every Tuesday at the Sanibel Community Association, the 10-week Brain Fitness course offers participants simple and beneficial techniques and exercises which can be used to improve our lifestyles, improve both long-term and short-term memory as well as ward off some of the negative signs of aging.

“There has been a lot of interest in brain fitness recently because research has shown that brain cells can continue to generate new cells, depending upon the way you live and exercise, which goes against what we previously thought happens as we get older,” said Wallen.

On Tuesday, the second class in the series – Mindfulness & Memory – was attended by 11 island residents hoping to learn more about brain fitness.

Wallen explained that as people age, certain brain functions tend to slow down, including reaction times, focus of attention and short-term memory. However, studies have shown that some “executive functions” of the brain, such as reasoning, planning and creativity, can actually increase as we get older.

“Not paying attention is the number one cause of short-term memory loss,” she explained. “It’s not the only cause, but it is the biggest.”

She then instructed the class to take part in a demonstration in which each were asked to write down their answers to the following questions:

1. What did you watch on TV last night?

2. What outfit did you wear yesterday?

3. What did you eat for dinner the night before last?

Of the 11 students, all of them answered the first question correctly. One of them couldn’t answer the second question and three could not answer the third.

“Our heads are quite often thinking about the past or thinking about the future,” said Wallen following the exercise. “It is very rarely in the here and now.”

She called the clutter of incoming and outgoing thoughts “mind chatter,” then explained several breathing exercises which can be used to improve how we can better focus our attention.

The first step in the exercise was to sit up straight, feet flat on the floor, and eyes closed. Wallen said the diaphragmatic breathing exercise can assist in relaxing the mind while focusing attention on taking each breath in and exhaling each breath out. She called the technique “mindfulness meditation.”

“Our focus is to increase your awareness, not to zone out or turn everything off,” said Wallen. “Our goal is conscious awareness. You’re not longer on auto-pilot… you’re thinking better.”

During a break midway through the class, several students reported positive things they had learned already.

“I think this class is wonderful,” said Carolyn Graham. “I’m thrilled that she’s teaching us how to not just think but to pay attention. I’m dyslexic, so I’ve had trouble concentrating on things. Hopefully, this will help.”

“I came to improve my memory skills,” added Ann Arnoff. “I think these exercises will be a tool to improve the acuteness and awareness of my immediate surroundings.”

While the first two sessions of Wallen’s Brian Fitness course have focused on Memory Techniques 101 (June 9) and Mindfulness & Memory (June 16), upcoming classes will feature additional strategies for improving and maintaining your memory. They will include Mental Exercises (June 23) and More Memory Techniques (June 30).

Other classes in the future will feature:

How To Achieve Brain Fitness – A list of 10 things you can do to ensure your brain stays in top form throughout your life. It is never too late to learn something new.

The Science of Brain Fitness – A review of recent scientific discoveries about the brain’s ability to adapt and change even into old age.

Life Review and Memory Enhancement – Structured exercises and guided practice in reviewing your personal history to strengthen long-term memory. This is not a memoir-writing class.

Better Sleep – Review of the latest information on what contributes to a good night’s sleep and explanation of non-drug techniques for getting to sleep (or getting back to sleep).

Stress Reduction – Brief overview of the effects of stress on brain fitness and presentation of both mental and physical techniques for relaxation that can be done anywhere or any time.

Positive Aging – An overview of the role of elders in societies throughout history and a review of the research of Dr. Gene Cohen on the positive ways the brain changes with age.

The fee for each Brain Fitness class is $12, and participants can attend just one or all of the sessions. Each class is a stand-alone program, so pre-registration is not necessary. The Sanibel Community Association (SCA) is located at 2173 Periwinkle Way.

Also offered at the SCA is a program of computer-based brain fitness exercises on Wednesday afternoons from 1:30 to 3 p.m. No computer experience is necessary.

For questions or additional information, call Lynn Wallen at 472-5497.