Hear the word “exercise,” and any number of scenarios may pop to mind. Some people may whisper to themselves—count me among them—“I need to join a gym.” Others may recollect the evenings they spend jogging around the neighborhood. A select few may reflect on their arduous CrossFit training.
But even fewer, if any, will think of doing crossword puzzles, playing chess, learning a new language, or playing the guitar.
Yet, these are just some of the tools investigators have found invaluable for the health of that three-pound packet of gray matter encased in your skull, otherwise known as the brain.
More and more, researchers have discovered that cognition can be strengthened by creating a sort of gymnasium for the mind. “Oh, come on, use your brain,” people sometimes say in exasperation, and scientists would wholeheartedly agree.
Not only does putting the noggin through some hoops help ward off Alzheimer’s disease and dementia in many people, but these mental push-ups and jumping jacks actually boost an array of faculties such as memory, intelligence, and creativity.
Here are a few tips and suggestions for putting your brain through the paces.
First up, physical activity itself exercises the brain. In Grace McGregor’s article “How Exercise Affects the Brain,” we learn that physical exercise feeds the brain by aiding circulation and increasing blood flow, which delivers necessary nutrients. It reduces the effect of stress hormones. Surprisingly, a physical workout can also strengthen our memory functions by aiding a process called synaptogenesis, the links mediating learning and memory.
Then, there are the exercises focused directly on the brain itself. Medical News Today, for instance, offers “22 Brain Exercises to Improve Memory, Cognition, and Creativity.” Here, chess, checkers, sudoku, and board games of all kinds are touted as excellent calisthenics for the mind. Visiting with friends, especially if the conversation is stimulating, is another brain builder. The authors add to this list learning a foreign language, learning to play a musical instrument, dancing, meditating, and practicing tai chi. Getting enough sleep also helps to boost memory and regulate metabolism.
Perhaps most interesting item on this list is No. 2: “visualizing more.” Here the article offers as an example a trip to the grocery store, where, before setting off, the shopper takes a few moments to imagine picking out certain items. “The key,” the article reads, “is to imagine the scenes vividly and in as much detail as possible.” Applied to all sorts of situations, these visualization techniques apparently stretch the imagination and powers of thought.
Of course, we can also avoid habits that are as harmful to our brain as to the rest of our body. Cigarettes? Bad for the brain. Alcohol consumed in excess? Bad for the brain, as anyone who’s suffered a hangover already knows. A poor diet? Check. Too much television? Another check, for two reasons. First, you could allocate some of that sofa time to taking a walk, cleaning the basement, or talking to a friend. Second, watching too much tube is like gobbling down fast food with your eyeballs. You’re putting junk into your head.
“The mind is just like a muscle,” says motivational speaker, author, and consultant Idowu Koyenikan. “The more you exercise it, the stronger it gets and the more it can expand.”
And here’s the best news: Our choices for that exercise are wide open. A game of chess, a half-hour fiddling with a sudoku puzzle, some time spent in meditation—now, there’s a workout program anyone could love.