It is a widely known and accepted fact that regular physical exercise helps to keep your body healthy and can even add years to your life. When it comes to living a healthy lifestyle, being physically active and nourishing your body with the right foods are at the top of the list. What many of us never give much thought to is how our everyday habits, and just the simple passing of time, affects the brain and how we age mentally. It turns out that exercising your brain on a regular basis is just as important as getting in all those reps at the gym. In fact, current research tells us that mental fitness may even be more important than physical fitness as we age.
With each birthday that passes, do you find yourself feeling a little more distracted and not quite as mentally sharp as you once were? You do not need to have passed middle age to begin feeling these effects. Not only does the human brain actually physically shrink as it ages, but we also reach our peak of mental capacity somewhere between the ages of 16 and 25. After that point, the brain begins the process of a slow decline that will continue the rest of your life, unless you decide to be proactive about it.
From the moment that your brain starts developing, it works to form new neural pathways that are necessary to process the information that it constantly receives. We tend to take our minds for granted, and then blame the natural aging process when we become a little forgetful or easily distracted.
The brain is not only the most important organ, but also arguably the most fascinating one. The brain, while not a muscle, tends to act in some ways as though it is one. When you don’t use your muscles, they weaken and atrophy to the point that you might not be able to perform physical actions that you were once able to do with ease. To become stronger, you must work out those muscle groups on a regular basis. The brain is similar in the way that it responds to stimulation, or mental exercise. The good news is that with a little effort, keeping your brain fit is quite easy and even enjoyable. There are many ways that you can stimulate yourself mentally and provide the right environment to keep those neurons firing. To stay at your peak of mental fitness, try incorporating a few of these brain-building tips into your daily routine.
Have a Stimulating Conversation
This sounds like it is almost too simple to be effective, however, it is entirely possible to go days, maybe even weeks without having a stimulating conversation. It could be that you work in an environment that isn’t conductive for brainstorming or where talk of potentially controversial subjects is immediately shut down. Maybe you spend your days at home taking care of and engaging with small children and your opportunities for adult conversations are limited. Before you know it, you can’t remember the last time that you had a real conversation where ideas and thoughts were exchanged and maybe even challenged.
Make a point of finding an outlet to have conversations about subjects that stimulate and challenge you. These types of conversations almost always lead to thinking more deeply about the subject at hand or opening the path to new subjects altogether. If you have someone in your life to have these types of talks with, consider joining a group with similar interests, or even an online forum.
Read a Book
Sitting down with a good book is a very enjoyable way to exercise your brain. Of course, the more stimulating the reading material the better, however, just the act of reading and becoming entwined in the plot of the book is enough to exercise your mind. The next time you feel like binge watching an entire season of a show, or find yourself getting sucked into hours of game playing or scrolling on your phone, choose instead to spend that time reading a book. Whether your selection comes from a dusty bookshelf or your kindle library doesn’t matter. What matters is that your brain is forced into analyzing the language and sentence structure as you read. It is essentially forced to create mental images, or form intelligent thoughts, both of which are important for strengthening neural pathways.
Do it Differently
Even simple or mundane daily tasks can be an opportunity to stimulate your brain when you mix it up a little. Try writing with your non-dominant hand, take a different route to work or rearrange your workspace. With each of these actions you are forcing your mind to work rather than just performing automatically.
Use your Senses
All your senses are involved in the learning process, and keeping your brain healthy. We each learn a little differently, often relying upon one of our senses more heavily than the others. This is why you might consider yourself a visual learner, while someone else is an auditory or hands on learner. You can challenge yourself by using your non-dominant senses to learn and explore the world. For instance, you can wear a blindfold and challenge yourself to walk around your home using your other senses and your intuition. Play a game where you try to identify unknown objects in a grab bag by touch alone. Or cover your eyes and try to guess what certain scents are. Find a way to individually engage each one of your senses every day.
The next time you are lounging around on your day off, looking for a way to beat the boredom, try going out for a little adventure. Decide a direction to head in and just go. Turn down roads you have never been on before and visit towns you have never been to or even knew existed. Do not use any GPS of map to get you there, just let your senses and intuition lead the way. The new scenery and sense of the unknown will stimulate you mentally. Of course, stay safe by bringing your phone, and other essentials. You can even use the GPS on your phone, but only to find your way back home again.
Let the Music Play
Have you always wanted to learn how to play the piano? There is no reason that you should put off this desire any longer. In fact, investing in some music lessons might be an investment in your mental health as well. Studies show that learning to play a new instrument boosts your memory and concentration. Even if playing an instrument isn’t your thing, you can still use music to help keep you sharp and focused. Classical music helps to boost serotonin levels, which are important for the transmission of nerve impulses in the brain. Serotonin is associated with feelings of contentment, happiness and joy; however, it also effects how your brain organizes the information and messages that it receives. Listening to classical music on a regular basis can help you to not only feel happier and more energetic but also retain information and problem solve more efficiently.
Let Go of Stress
Nothing can zap energy faster than constantly feeling stressed. Unfortunately, chronic stress is something that too many of us deal with today. Stress doesn’t just leave you feeling physically lethargic, it can also tank your brain power. When you are stressed, your body produces an excess of a hormone called cortisol. Too much cortisol has been shown to damage cells in the parts of the brain which are responsible for memory functions. To prevent premature mental aging, you should do what you can to reduce the amount of stress that you experience on a regular basis. Though this often requires an individualized approach, activities such as mediation, yoga, gratitude practice, journaling and engaging more in enjoyable social interactions are popular and effective ways of reducing the stress in your life.
Getting an adequate amount of sleep is important for your health on many levels. You might already know that quality sleep helps to fight off depression, anxiety, metabolic syndrome and cardiac disease, just to name a few. A lack of sleep can affect your brain health as well. Your body repairs and restores itself while you are sleeping, with some of the most important restorative work happening in the brain. When you are sleeping, your brain has little additional stimulation to process, so it uses the time to process and organize all the information that it received that day. Without adequate sleep your memory and your focus suffer. Aim for seven to nine hours a night, and keep your sleep schedule as regular as possible.
Play Brain Games
If you know someone that is well into their golden years and still sharp as a tac, chances are they spend a little time everyday playing some sort of brain game. By brain games, we mean any type of game or puzzle that stimulates and engages the brain. Examples include crossword puzzles, logic puzzles, trivia games, and sudoku to name a few. These types of games and puzzles force you to think in a low pressure, relaxed atmosphere, which means you get all the benefits of exercising your mind without the negatives of being in a tense or high pressure situation.
Physical Exercise is Good for the Brain Too
When you engage in physical exercise, you also increase the flow of blood and oxygen to the brain. One study found that regular exercise can actually increase the size of the hippocampus, which is the part of the brain responsible for memory and learning. Exercise also reduces inflammation and encourages the release of growth factors that affect the overall health of brain cells. The next time you are feeling foggy and unable to concentrate, try exercising for 15-20 minutes and notice an increase in your mental energy and clarity.
Eat Smart to Be Smart
There is a demonstrated connection between the consumption of fresh produce and healthy fats with long term brain health. In fact, people who eat a diet rich in fresh fruits, vegetables and healthy fats such as those found in avocados, nuts and fatty fish show a lower rate of cognitive decline as they age. Also, the very same dietary and lifestyle habits that lead to chronic health conditions such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease are thought to contribute to an increased risk of dementia later in life. If your heart is healthy, there is a better chance that your brain is too. Keep both your body and mind healthy by eating diet full of fresh, healthy foods and quality protein sources.
There is plenty that you can do on daily basis to protect and preserve your brain health. Feeling mentally sharp and focused is directly related to a higher quality of life. It really doesn’t take much effort to keep your brain healthy, and the effects will last for decades. Of all the tips listed here, I saved the best one for last. To keep your mind sharp and healthy, the most effective thing you can do is to never stop learning. Our world is incredibly vast and the opportunities to explore and learn are endless. Just by keeping yourself open to these opportunities, you are taking one tremendous step towards protecting the power and health of that beautiful mind of yours and living an incredibly fulfilling life in the process.