Take Care of Your Body to Take Care of Your Mind
If you want to take care of your mind, you need to start by taking care of your body.
Research has time and time again shown that people who engage in healthy behaviors such as exercise and proper nutrition are less susceptible to the cognitive declines associated with the aging process.
Studies from 2006 even suggest that exercise can make you smarter and protect your brain from shrinkage as it ages.2 Research on mice in 2013 has even revealed that exercise can increase neurogenesis, or the formation of new brain cells, in the brain’s hippocampus.3
One study published in 2013 looked at healthy behaviors in nearly 2,300 men over the course of thirty years. Researchers looked at the participants’ behaviors and cognitive abilities starting in middle age tracked their progress throughout old age.4
The researchers found that men who practiced certain healthy behaviors were around 60% less likely to experience cognitive impairment and dementia as they age.
These healthy behaviors included not smoking, maintaining a healthy BMI, regularly exercising, consuming lots of vegetables and fruits, and consuming a low to moderate amount of alcohol.4
So if you want to build a better mind, start by working on your physical health first. Go for a walk, start incorporating more fresh fruits and vegetables into your diet, and try to give up any bad habits like excessive alcohol consumption or tobacco use. Some of these might be more difficult than others, but your brain will thank you for years to come.
Draw a Map of Your Town From Memory
While you might feel like you can navigate the streets of your neighborhood with your eyes closed, try challenging your brain by actually drawing a map of your town or neighborhood from memory. No cheating! Try to include major streets, major side streets, and local landmarks.
Once you are done, compare your memory map to a real map of the area. How did you do? Are you surprised by some of the things that you missed? If you found this activity too easy, try drawing a less familiar area from memory, such as a map of the entire United States or Europe, and try to label every state or country.
Navigating your way to the supermarket or doctor’s office might seem simple and almost automatic when you are behind the wheel of your car. However, forcing yourself to remember the layout of your neighborhood as well as draw and label it helps activate a variety of areas of your brain.
Learn Something New
This brain exercise requires a bit of commitment, but it is also one that just might give you the most bang for your buck. Learning something new is one way to keep your brain on its toes and continually introduce new challenges.
In one study, researchers assigned older adults to learn a variety of new skills ranging from digital photography to quilting. They then did memory tests and compared the experimental groups to control groups. Those in the control groups had engaged in activities that were fun but not mentally challenging such as watching movies and listening to the radio.5
The researchers found that only those participants who had learned a new skill experienced improvement on the memory tests.
They also discovered that these memory improvements were still present when tested again a year later.
Some things you might want to try include learning a new language, learning to play a musical instrument or learning a new hobby. Not only will you be stretching your mind, but you will also be continually learning something new as you keep expanding your skills and becoming more accomplished.
Try Using Your Non-Dominant Hand
Up next is an interesting brain exercise that one neurobiologist suggests might help “keep your brain alive.” In his book Keep Your Brain Alive: 83 Neurobic Exercises to Help Prevent Memory Loss and Increase Mental Fitness, neurobiologist Lawrence Katz recommends using your non-dominant hand to strengthen your mind. Because using your opposite hand can be so challenging, it can be a great way to increase brain activity.6
Try switching hands while you are eating dinner or when you are trying to write something down. It will be difficult, but that is exactly the point.
The most effective brain activities are those that are not necessarily easy.
Up next is an activity that you probably do every day, but you might not realize just how beneficial it might be for your mental strength.
Studies from 2019 suggest that people who are socially active are also at a lower risk of developing dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.7
Socializing tends to engage multiple areas of the brain and many social activities also include physical elements, such as playing a sport, that is also beneficial to your mind.
Even if you are an inveterate introvert, seeking social interactions can be beneficial to your brain in both the short and long-term. Some ideas for staying socially engaged to include signing up for volunteer opportunities in your community, joining a club, signing up for a local walking group, and staying in close touch with your friends and family.
One brain exercise you might not have considered might actually be extremely effective – meditation. Mindfulness meditation, in particular, is all the rage at the moment, espoused by positive psychologists, business leaders, and alternative health practitioners. Before you say that this ancient Buddhist tradition is too New Age for you, consider some of the research demonstrating the many benefits of meditation.
Studies from 2007 suggest that mindfulness meditation can help engage new neural pathways, resulting in improved self-observational skills and increased mental flexibility.
The 2007 research has also shown that meditation can help improve attention, focus, empathy, and even immunity. Studies also suggest that meditation might even increase the capacity of working memory.8
Are you ready to try this brain exercise? You can read a quick guide to practicing mindfulness meditation. You can also check out some handy tips for incorporating mindfulness into your everyday life.
Once you’ve tried some of these brain exercises, you might be left wondering if any of those online “brain training” websites might also help. Next up, let’s explore whether or not those sites, apps, and programs might really be worth your time.
What About All Those Brain Training Games?
Chances are probably pretty good that you’ve at least heard, or even tried, some of the many brain training games, websites, and apps that are out there. Many of these tools claim that these computerized brain exercises can increase your mental flexibility, keep you mentally sharper as you age and even make you more intelligent.
While there is still plenty of debate about whether or not these claims are true, there is a chance that playing these types of mental games might is good for your brain.
How much exactly is still up for debate. If you think you would enjoy such games, you can find a nice list of brain training resources that you might want to check out.
If, however, you already spend too much time staring at your computer screen or smartphone, your time is probably much better well spent going out for a stroll, enjoying a new hobby or even visiting with a friend. All of these activities can have major long-term effects on the health and vitality of your brain.