Keep Your Brain Working with Workouts

Promoting long-term brain health through fun and engaging activities

What is one part of your body that you can exercise without having to buy an expensive gym membership? Your brain.

Exercising, for many of us, means lifting weights, stretching, and/or working with a personal trainer. These can be beneficial practices resulting in weight loss, increased flexibility, greater endurance, and muscle building. Considering that the brain is an important part of the human body (and one which allows for many of our body’s movements and functions), it makes sense to exercise it as well.

A human brain is thirsty for knowledge and people have to provide it with information to keep and/or process. “The brain wants to learn new things”, explains Robert Bender M.D., medical director of the Johnny Orr Memory Center and Healthy Aging Institute in Des Moines, Iowa. When keeping brains working, people can not only boost their memories but can also reduce the risk of dementia in later life.

Activities to Promote Brain Health

The good news is that there are plenty of ways to exercise your brain – and you don’t have to head to the gym or even break a sweat doing it! Try any, or all, of the following tips on how to keep your brain healthy and gauge the results for yourself:

Read. Newspapers, magazines and books can all be great sources of information. By reading, your brain can learn many new things. If you don’t have time to sit down and read, try listening to an audio book when you’re driving to work or a podcast when you’re taking a walk on the weekend. Thanks to today’s technology, you don’t even have to carry a physical book around with you (although there is something to be said for holding a book in your hands). You could buy an e-reader to stock up on books.

List and recall items. Do you need to create a grocery shopping list for more than three items? This may signal a slowing brain. Make that list, by all means, but set it aside for an hour or so and then see if you can remember what you had written. To make things more challenging, list more needed items or more “to-do” points requiring different stops (i.e. the grocery store, the drug store, and the veterinarian).

Take a class. Does a local school or university offer continuing education classes? Perhaps an artist’s store offers instruction on how to paint? Maybe a chef would teach a “learn to cook” class? Sign up for something of former interest or explore something brand new! Depending on your age and/or level of involvement, you may also pay a reduced fee for a class (e.g. seniors and students auditing the course – for no other reason than personal enjoyment – can pay a discounted price to learn).

Drive another route to work. Chances are you take the same route to and from the office on a daily basis. This becomes routine, and your brain doesn’t have to work too hard (this can result in you losing concentration behind the wheel and becoming a risk to yourself as well as others). When you change up your driving route, you will become more aware, and your brain will work harder.

Distract yourself. Concentrating on one specific problem for too long can make a brain tired. If this happens, try turning your attention to something else. When I am battling a bad case of writer’s block, I go for a walk or run to clear my mind.

Learn a new sport. Have you ever heard of pickleball? The sport (similar to tennis, badminton, and ping-pong) is becoming featured more frequently on senior centers’ activity programs. Not only is this game often new for participants, it provides exercise, socialization, and great fun as well.

As with the case of pickleball, brain workouts don’t have to be completely serious. “Almost any silly suggestion can work”, says David Eagleman, PhD, neuroscientist and assistant professor at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas. Just one idea is to “brush your teeth with the opposite hand.” There are plenty of card games to keep your brain healthy as well, like bridge or poker. John E. Morley, MD, director of St. Louis University’s Division of Geriatric Medicine and author of The Science of Staying Young, agrees. He explains that “simple games like Sudoku and word games are good, as well as comic strips where you find things that are different from one picture to the next.”

Much like exercising your body, there will be times when exercising your brain becomes overly difficult and challenging. At these times, it’s good to rest. Watching television can be a common thing to do, but don’t do it too often, warns Dr. Bender. “When the brain is passive, it has a tendency to atrophy. Therefore, sitting in front of a TV for hours at a time can be detrimental to brain health over time.” Continually work your brain and your brain will continually work for you.