5 Brain Exercises to Strengthen Your Mind

1
What Can You Do to Strengthen Your Mind?

Woman holding drawing of brain
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While you might know that you need to exercise your body, did you know that it might also be important to exercise your mind? You've probably heard the old adage "use it or lose it." Many researchers do believe that this maxim applies to your brain health.

Brain training is all the rage these days, often touted as a way to sharpen your mind and even boost intelligence. While many cognitive scientists suggest that the claims surrounding brain training are both exaggerated and misleading, there is an abundance of research suggesting that certain types of activities can be beneficial for your brain's health.

The brain's plasticity allows it to adapt and change, even as you grow older. As you learn new things, you can create and strengthen neural pathways and networks. This helps make your brain stronger, but it can also help make it more flexible and adaptable to change.

While the researchers still debate whether or not brain training might actually make you smarter, experts agree that challenging and novel brain exercises can be used to protect and strengthen your mind. These benefits can be particularly useful for keeping your mind sharp as you get older.

One extensive study involved more than 2,800 participants over the age of 65 who each engaged in one of three different forms of cognitive training. Types of training used included speed of processing training, memory training and reasoning training.

The researchers found that those in the speed of processing group experienced the greatest benefits, possibly because the training resulted in a broader brain activation pattern. However, all three groups benefited, experiencing protection from age-related cognitive declines that lasted at least five years.

Clearly certain mental activities can have important brain benefits.

Now let's tackle some brain exercises that you can do at home. While these brain games are not designed to make you more intelligent, you might find that you feel mentally sharper and cognitively stronger if you practice them regularly.

Next up: One of the best ways to strengthen your mind takes a bit of commitment, but it is also one of the most effective and rewarding. Find out what you need to do to get that brain of yours in tip-top shape.

Reference

Wolinksy, F.D., Unverzagt, F.W., Smith, D.M., Jones, R., Stoddard, A., & Tennstedt, S.L. (2006). The ACTIVE cognitive training trial and health-related quality of life: Protection that lasts for 5 years. The Journals of Gerontology, Series A: Biological Sciences, 61(12), 1324-1329.

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Take Care of Your Body to Take Care of Your Mind

Man and woman exercising
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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 even suggest that exercise can make you smarter and protect your brain from shrinkage as it ages. Research has even revealed that exercise can increase neurogenesis, or the formation of new brain cells, in the brain's hippocampus.

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.

The researchers found that men who practiced certain healthy behaviors were around 60 percent less likely to experience cognitive impairment and dementia as they aged. 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.

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.

Next up is a challenging (and somewhat surprising) brain exercise that you can easily do at home.

Reference

Elwood, P., Galante, J., Pickering, J., Palmer, S., Bayer, A., Ben-Shlomo, Y., Longley, M., & Gallacher, J. (2013). Healthy lifestyles reduce the incidence of chronic diseases and dementia: Evidence from the Caerphilly cohort study. PLoS One, 8(12):e81877. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0081877.

3
Draw a Map of Your Town from Memory

Drawing a map from memory
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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. Brain training research has repeatedly shown that it is exactly these types of challenging and complex activities that provide the greatest benefit to your brain.

Next up is a fun and rewarding brain exercise you can easily do whenever you have a little spare time.

4
Learn Something New

Learning to play guitar
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This brain exercise requires a bit of commitment, but it is also one that just might give you the most bang for your buck. Remember how researchers believe that the most effective brain training exercises are those that are challenging, novel and complex? Learning something new is one way to keep your brain on its toes and continually introduce new challenges.

In one study, researcher 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.

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.

Up next is an interesting brain exercise that one neurobiologist suggests might help "keep your brain alive."

References

Park, D.C., Lodi-Smith, J., Drew, L., Haber, S., Hebrank, A., Bischof, G.N., & Aamodt, W. (2013). The impact of sustained engagement on cognitive function in older adults: The synapse project. Psychological Science. doi: 10.1177/0956797613499592

Silverman, L. (2014). Learning a new skill works best to keep your brain sharp. NPR. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2014/05/05/309006780/learning-a-new-skill-works-best-to-keep-your-brain-sharp.

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Try Using Your Non-Dominant Hand

Writing with other hand
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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.

Try switching hand 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.

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Socialize

Friends socializing
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Studies suggest that people who are socially active are also at a lower risk of developing dementia and Alzheimer's disease. Socializing tends to engage multiple areas of the brain and many social activities also include physical elements, such as playing a sport, that are 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 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.

Up next is a brain exercise that has been in use for thousands of years but has recently gained considerable recognition for its effectiveness.

Reference

Alzheimers's Association. (n.d.). Staying mentally and socially active. Retrieved from http://www.alz.org/we_can_help_stay_mentally_and_socially_active.asp.

7
Meditate

Woman meditating in office
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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 suggest that mindfulness meditation can help engage new neural pathways, resulting in improved self-observational skills and increased mental flexibility. 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.

Are you ready to try this brain exercise? Here is a quick guide to practicing mindfulness meditation. You can also check out some of these 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.

Reference

Davis, D., & Hayes, J.A. (2012). What are the benefits of mindfulness? Monitor on Psychology, 43(7), 64. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/monitor/2012/07-08/ce-corner.aspx.

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So What About All Those Brain Training Games?

Brain training games
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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, here is 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.

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