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Last Updated on February 11, 2020

8 Brain Exercises for Mental Strength and a Smarter Brain

8 Brain Exercises for Mental Strength and a Smarter Brain

Everyone says that we need to strive for a healthy body. These people are the people who say we should be going to the gym, exercise daily, and eat the right kind of food.

And while that advice is helpful, I feel a lot of people forget about another important part of ourselves: our brain.

Think about it.

When was the last time that you read a book?

Most are likely guilty of not having read a book in years. From 2004 to 2018, the number of people in America leisurely reading has dropped by 30%.[1]

We place so much priority on our bodies, and yet most of us don’t prioritize brain exercises or brain care. Why is that?

Fortunately, with brain exercises, we can reverse a lot of the damage that’s been done. Thanks to massive developments in neuroscience, we understand when our brain is at peak performance and what we can do to maintain it or bring it back to those levels.

Do Brain Exercises Really Work?

The short answer is yes.

First, there is all of Sherry Willis’ work. From her efforts, participants were able to do varying degrees of difficult tasks. Not only that but they were able to do so in an efficient manner than before.

There was also an extensive study that looked at the long-term effects of brain exercises on older individuals. The study provided brain exercises to 2,832 individuals aged 65 and up.[2]

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Over a 10 year period, participants were given training in processing speed, memory, and reasoning. Another smaller controlled group received no such training.

After that 10 year period, the researchers came back after 5 years to see results. While the training did help the older individuals during the 10 years of brain exercises, those benefits were gone after 5 years.

After 10 years of having the brain training, there were no signs of brain improvements.

What this study uncovers is that not only does the training work, but also it’s important to practice this regularly. Similar to our health, if we don’t train our bodies, it’ll deteriorate similar to our brain if we don’t exercise it.

Which Brain Exercises Are the Best?

According to research done in 1999, our brain reaches peak performance between age 16 and 25.[3] After that, our cognitive functioning – our ability to mentally process and carry out tasks – declines naturally. This doesn’t mean that we will be mentally incapable of working after a certain period of time though. Rather, our ability to change, process certain tasks, and introduce new processes will be tougher.

Understanding this is important since brain exercises are designed to keep the brain functional all around.[4] Examples are being able to do daily tasks, retaining memories, and keeping focus. This might not be a big issue right now but, it becomes more pressing when you get older and there are threats of dementia, amnesia, and Alzheimers — mental issues that could be stopped through regular exercise of our brains.

The question is, what sort of exercises are best for us?

Simple: personalized brain exercises.

Many people have tried all kinds of tactics to exercise their brains. And while there is research to support a variety of these claims, there’s more scientific support behind this particular form of training.

The strategy has been proven by Dr. Sherry Willis, a professor at the University of Texas. Through her research, she proved participants became more efficient at performing typical tasks at varying levels of complexity.[5]

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Participants were able to write shopping lists to being able to operate technical equipment with ease.

The big question now is where can you find these sorts of programs?

Since this research emerged, many businesses have been formed to help in this area. Training can be as simple as playing Sudoku to having full-fledged programs given out by various apps.[6]

8 Brain Exercises to Strengthen Your Brain

While having a personalized brain training course is great, not everyone is mentally prepared for them. Instead, people may find it better to strengthen their brains in other ways.

While these methods lack built-in long-term challenges or personalization, those can be mitigated. That is, if you want to start taking care of your brain as much as you want to look after the rest of your body.

1. Exercise

Studies from 2006 show that exercise has tremendous benefits on our brain. Specifically, exercising can protect our brain from shrinkage as it ages.[7]

While exercise may not be the most engaging or challenging brain exercise, this is one way to get the best of both worlds. Not only that, but you can add a layer of challenge by doing different exercises.

This helps because it teaches our brain to fire off new signals to our brain. This increases our brains plasticity – the ability to change and think differently. Thus doing new exercises will strengthen our brains.

2. Drawing Maps

A lot of us remember the streets we grew up like the back of our hands. We can navigate it with ease with no challenge.

But have you ever drawn it out before?

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One good challenge is to draw out the streets and what your neighbourhood looked like. Try to recall iconic landmarks and place them on the map as well.

Once you’re done with the map, find a real map and compare it with the one you drew. More often than not, you probably missed a few spots here and there. This happens because our brain doesn’t store that specific information for very long. Once we know where we want to go, our brain typically signals us to go a familiar route. We subconsciously comply and think nothing else of it.

Regardless, drawing a map can help us strengthen our brain and is a step above physical exercise since this demands more brainpower. I’d also encourage you to challenge yourself further and draw larger scale maps. Why not draw a map of the United State and write in all the state’s locations and capitals? Why not do the same with Canada?

3. Learning Something New

Barring personalized training, the best form of brain exercise stems from doing something different. Starting something new requires a lot of mental capacity.

Not only are you learning to do something new, but you also need to keep yourself motivated to continue doing it. Because of this, learning something new will keep us on our toes.

What’s also nice is that the activities don’t need to be really challenging. For example, one study had two groups and was asked to do different activities.[8] One group was asked to learn new skills like quilting or digital photography. The other was asked to watch movies or listen to the radio.

The study found that those quilting or doing digital photography had a better memory than those who had more leisure activities. They proved this by giving the individuals memory tests.

4. Socialize

When we get older, we tend to have a smaller circle of friends and thus, talk less and less. What’s saddening is the lack of social activity negatively impacts our mental health.

We’re obviously social creatures, so it should come to no surprise that being socially active is one way to exercise our brain. It also is one way of fighting back dementia and Alzheimer’s.[9]

Even if you are an introvert, seeking social interactions clearly has short-term and long-term benefits. Some ideas to be socially active is by joining clubs, going for daily walks with people, volunteering in your community, or staying in contact with your family or past friends.

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5. Doing a Jigsaw Puzzle

Big or small, research shows that this exercise recruits multiple cognitive abilities.[10]

6. Playing Card Games

Similarly, card games both online and offline can prove useful for your brain. One study in 2015 found that card games activate various parts of the brain.[11] Games included poker, crazy eights, solitaire, bridge, and gin rummy.

7. Learning a New Language

I mentioned earlier that learning something new is good but, it doesn’t always have to be a physical skill. Learning a new language activates many regions of our brain while also boosting cognition.[12]

8. Taking a New Route to a Familiar Destination

That or simply go down a different road. This doesn’t apply to driving or travelling but to any sort of problem that you deal with in life. By pushing yourself to think of other alternatives, your brain receives a number of benefits from making a simple change as these taxi drivers discovered.

Bottom Line

A lot of the reasons to consider brain exercises in our lives is similar to our health. As you can probably tell, these exercises do not take very long. They can be easily integrated into our daily lives.

Furthermore, brain exercises improve our focus, memory, and ability to complete daily activities. To stop doing brain exercises is to remove all of those benefits that can help us significantly as we get older.

So if you can’t get personalized brain training, consider the strategies I mentioned above. You’d be surprised how easy and how quickly you’ll notice changes in your life from this.

More to Sharpen Your Brain

Featured photo credit: Micael Sáez via unsplash.com

Reference

More by this author

Leon Ho

Founder & CEO of Lifehack

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Published on July 7, 2020

Brain Training: 12 Fast, Fun Mental Workouts

Brain Training: 12 Fast, Fun Mental Workouts

Exercise isn’t just for your body. Just as important is keeping your mind strong by training your brain with fun mental workouts.

Think of your mental and physical fitness the same way: you don’t need to be an Olympian, but you do need to stay in shape if you want to live well. A few cognitive workouts per week can make a major difference in your life.

The Skinny on Mental Workouts

Physical fitness boosts your stamina and increases your muscular strength. The benefits of working up a mental sweat and brain training, however, might not be so obvious.

Research suggests that cognitive training has short- and long-term benefits, including:

1. Improved Memory

After eight weeks of cognitive training, 19 arithmetic students showed a larger and more active hippocampus than their peers.[1] The hippocampus is associated with learning and memory.

2. Reduced Stress Levels

Mastering new tasks more quickly makes the work of learning less stressful. A stronger memory can call information to mind with less effort.

3. Improved Work Performance

Learning quickly and remembering key details can lead to a better career. Employers are increasingly hiring for soft skills, such as trainability and attention to detail.

4. Delayed Cognitive Decline

As we age, we experience cognitive decline. A study published by the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society found that 10 one-hour sessions of cognitive training boosted reasoning and information processing speed in adults between the ages of 65 and 94.[2]

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Just like in physical exercise, what’s important isn’t the specific workout. To be sustainable, cognitive workouts need to be easy and fun. Otherwise, it’s too easy to throw in the towel.

Fun Brain Training Exercises for Everyone

The best about fun mental workouts? There’s no need to head to a gym. Feel free to mix and match the following activities for daily brain training:

1. Brainstorming

One of the simplest, easiest ways to engage your brain? Coming up with solutions to a challenge you’re facing.

If you aren’t good at solo ideation, ask a partner to join you. When I’m struggling to come up with topics to write about, I call up my editors to bat ideas around. Friends or co-workers are usually happy to help.

2. Dancing

Isn’t dancing a physical workout? Yes, but the coordination it requires is also great for training your brain. Plus, it’s a lot of fun.

Studies suggest that dance boosts multiple cognitive skills.[3] Planning, memorizing, organizing, and creativity all seem to benefit from a few fancy steps.

3. Learning a New Language

Learning a new language takes time. But if you split it up into small, daily lessons, it’s easier than you might think.

With language learning, every lesson builds on the last. When I was learning Spanish, I used a tool called Guru for knowledge management.[4] Every time I’d learn a verb tense, I’d create a new card to give me a quick refresh before moving on.

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4. Developing a Hobby

Like languages, hobbies take time to develop. But that’s the fun of them: you get a little better—both at the hobby and in terms of brain function—each time you do them.

If you’re trying to train your brain and improve a certain cognitive skill, choose a hobby that aligns with it.

For example:

  • Attention to detail: Pick a hobby that requires you to work patiently with small features. Woodworking, model-building, sketching, and painting are all good choices.
  • Learning and memory: Choose an activity that requires you to remember lots of details. Your best bets are hobbies that require lots of categorization, such as collecting stamps or coins.
  • Motor function: For this brain function, physical activities can double as fun mental workouts. Sports like soccer and basketball build gross motor functions. Fine motor functions are better trained through activities like table tennis or even playing video games.
  • Problem-solving: Most hobbies require you to problem-solve in one way or another. The ones that test your problem-solving skills the most, however, take some investigation.

Geocaching is a good example: Using a combination of clues and GPS readings, geocaching involves finding and re-hiding containers. Typically done in a wooded area, geocaching is a fun way to put your problem-solving skills to the test.

5. Board Games

Playing a board game might not be much of a physical workout, but it does make for a fun mental workout. With that said, not all board games work equally well for cognitive training.

Avoid “no brainer” board games, like Candy Land. Opt for strategy-focused ones, such as Risk or Settlers of Catan. Remember to ask other players for their input.

6. Card Games

Card games build cognitive skills in much the same way board games do. They have a few extra advantages, though, that make them worthy of special attention.

A deck of cards is inexpensive and can be played anywhere, from a kitchen to an airplane. More importantly, a deck of cards opens the door to dozens of different games. Challenge yourself to learn a few in an afternoon.

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7. Puzzles

Puzzles are great tools for building a specific cognitive skill: visuospatial function. Visuospatial function is important to train because it’s one of the first abilities to slip in people struggling with cognitive diseases like Alzheimer’s.[5]

Choose a puzzle you’ll stick with. There’s no shame in starting with a 500-piece puzzle or choosing one that makes a childish image.

8. Playing Music

Listening to music is a great way to unwind. But playing music goes one step further. On top of entertaining you, it makes for a fun mental workout.

Again, choose an instrument you know you’ll stick with. If you’ve always wanted to learn the violin, don’t get a guitar because it’s less expensive or easier to pick up.

What if you can’t afford an instrument? Sing. Learning to control your voice is every bit as challenging as making a set of keys or strings sound good.

9. Meditating

Not all cognitive exercises are loud, in-your-face activities. Some of the most fun mental workouts, in fact, are quiet, solo activities. Meditating can help you focus, especially if you have pre-existing attention issues.

Don’t be intimidated if you’ve never meditated before. It’s easy:

  • Find a quiet, comfortable place to sit or lie down.
  • Set a timer for 10 minutes, or for however long you have to meditate.
  • Close your eyes or turn off the lights.
  • Focus on your breathing. Do not try to control it.
  • If your thoughts wander, gently bring them back to your breath.
  • When the timer goes off, wiggle your fingers and toes for a minute. Slowly bring yourself back to reality. Remember the sense of serenity you found.

10. Deep Conversation

There’s nothing more mentally stimulating than a good, long conversation. The key is depth: surface-level chatter doesn’t get the mind’s wheels spinning like a thoughtful, authentic conversation. This type of conversation helps in training your brain to think more deeply and reflect.

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Choose your partner carefully. You’re looking for someone who’ll challenge your ideas without being confrontational. Stress isn’t good for brain health, but there’s value in coming up with creative arguments.

11. Cooking

When you think about it, cooking requires an impressive array of cognitive skills. Developing a cook’s intuition requires a good memory. Making sure flavors are balanced takes attention to detail. When something goes wrong in the kitchen, problem-solving skills come into play. Motor control is required to stir, flip, and whisk.

If you’re going to cook, you might as well make enough for everyone. Invite them into the kitchen as well: coordinating with other chefs adds an extra layer of challenge to this fun mental workout.

12. Mentorship

Whether you’re the mentee or the mentor, mentorship is an incredible mental workout. Learning from someone you look up to combines the benefits of deep conversation with skill-building. Teaching someone else forces you to put yourself in their shoes, which requires empathy and problem-solving skills.

Put yourself in both situations. Being a student makes you a better teacher, and teaching others gives you insight into how you, yourself, learn.

Final Thoughts

Your mind is your most important possession, and training your brain is needed to maintain its health. Don’t let it get soft.

To keep those neurons firing at full speed, add a few fun mental workouts to your schedule. And if you’re still struggling to get your brain in gear, remember: there’s an app for that.

More Tips for Training Your Brain

Featured photo credit: Kelly Sikkema via unsplash.com

Reference

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