New Zealand Law Society - Keeping mentally alert

Keeping mentally alert

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Being mentally alert is hugely important for many of the functions lawyers need to carry out on a day-to-day basis.

There are four very useful strategies we can all easily put in place to enhance our mental functioning. These four are, in fact, very well known, and they are:

  • getting appropriate exercise;
  • getting appropriate nutrition;
  • managing and, where possible, reducing stress; and
  • taking time out, or relaxing.

Take time out

One way we can respond to a busy and at times taxing work load is to take time out and relax.

Physical exercise is a good way to have a break. It may be just to take a walk around the block for some five minutes or so.

It’s amazing how well an article can come together after taking five to 10 minutes to walk around before sitting down to write. Not only is the article usually of a higher quality, it also takes less time to write, more than offsetting the time spent having a short stroll.

Among the many benefits of physical exercise is that it gets more oxygen to your brain.

That has both a short-term benefit of increasing mental acuity and a long-term benefit of reducing the risk of disorders that can lead to memory loss.

Exercise helps activate brain chemicals that protect your brain cells.

Mental exercise can be very useful also, and many of these mental exercises are activities a lot of people choose to do just for fun.

Reading, for example, is very good mental exercise. So, too, are activities such as doing a crossword or a Sudoku. Even computer games help keep your brain active.

For those of us in office jobs, physical or “fun” mental exercises that involve us taking time out are one of the best things we can do when we in a challenging and high pressure work environment.

Taking a little time chat with work colleagues or friends is another good way to relax and take a break.

And, as many professional basketballers will tell you, time outs are there so that you can lift your performance.

Wherever you can, find ways to fit taking time out into your day. It’s amazing how much quicker and more efficiently you can work when you do.


Most of us know the importance of a healthy diet for our mental performance, especially in the long term.

A good diet is critical for a variety of our cognitive functions, particularly memory and reasoning.

On its website, the Ministry of Health advises us to “enjoy a variety of nutritious foods”. It particularly identifies the following:

  • plenty of vegetables and fruit;
  • grain foods, mostly whole grain and those naturally high in fibre;
  • some milk and milk products, mostly low- and reduced-fat; and
  • some legumes, nuts, seeds, fish and other seafood, eggs or poultry, or red meat with the fat removed.

All four of these categories provide nutrients that are important for cognitive functioning.

It’s worth noting that some of the items on the Ministry of Health’s list of nutritious foods have received some “bad press” in the past. These include eggs and red meat.

Eggs contain an ingredient linked to cognitive function – one that studies have found can improve memory – and that is choline.

Eggs also contain some essential fatty acids and egg yolks contain omega-3 fats, which are frequently somewhat lacking in our modern diets. Red meats that are pasture fed are also a good source of protein that contains omega-3 fats.

Although it is not on the Ministry of Health’s list, there is some good news for chocolate lovers. Dark chocolate containing 75% or higher cacao content is rich in flavonoids, which are good for us. Dark chocolate also contains caffeine, and the flavinoids and the caffeine can help with focus and concentration.

The polymeal

I mention dark chocolate because it features in a much discussed article that appeared in the 16 December 2004 issue of the British Medical Journal. The researchers put forward an idea called the “polymeal”.

They came up with a theoretical meal that, eaten daily, would reduce cardiovascular risk by a staggering 75%. The ingredients of the polymeal?

Wine, fish, almonds, garlic, fruits, vegetables and dark chocolate.

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