Everyday Exercises to Boost Brain Health
An amazing memory is an enviable trait if you are the forgetful type. I’m sure you have all experienced the frustration of spontaneously not being able to recall something you know well during a conversation. “Give me a minute, it will come to me,” you reassure yourself. I for one struggle to remember people’s names (while I never forget a face). I’m also not great with remembering directions (thank goodness for navigation apps!). The point is, as we age our memory naturally begins to weaken as hormones and proteins that protect and repair brain cells and stimulate neural growth also decline. But just as physical workouts add muscle to our bodies and help us retain it even in our later years, researchers believe that following a healthy lifestyle and a routine of brain exercises can also increase our brain’s reserve.
Our brain – like the rest of our body – needs to be trained to stay healthy and functioning at its best. It goes without saying that healthy eating, plenty of good sleep, and physical fitness are crucial habits that contribute towards a healthy brain, but you can also add a few activities and daily mental exercises to strengthen it further. So, let me share with you eight tips (suitable for all ages to practice) that can help to keep your mind in optimal shape…
1. Learn a New Language
I will be mentioning things that you may already be doing (if so, good for you); just like this first one on the list. Learning a language has heaps of cognitive benefits. Many studies have proven that being bilingual can contribute to better memory, in addition to improved visual-spatial skills and higher levels of creativity. It also helps people switch more easily between tasks. And it is never too late to learn a new language! In fact, a study has shown that learning a second language can delay the onset of cognitive impairment like Dementia in Alzheimer’s disease by around 4-5 years.
2. Use your Non-Dominant Hand for Daily Tasks
So, if you are right-handed, use your left hand to brush your teeth, to write a note, to browse on your phone and to perform other daily tasks to give your brain a mini workout. By practicing ambidexterity, you are using the opposite side of your brain and this triggers your prefrontal cortex and can form new neuron connections. In other words, you are activating non-dominant parts of your brain and this can provide you with new ways of thinking.
3. Draw a Map of Your Town From Memory
We all have a good idea of what our neighborhood looks like and if we close our eyes, we can pretty much navigate through all the streets we frequent in our area. But to actually draw it on paper and label it helps activate areas of our brain. So, try drawing a detailed map of your town or neighborhood purely from memory. Try to also include major streets, side streets and the local landmarks. Once finished cross check it with a real map of your area and see how you did. You can also try drawing the map of the Middle East or Europe from memory and try to label every country and city. Research shows that building a mental map is a major brain booster. In London, cab (taxi) drivers are required to memorize 25,000 streets and 20,000 landmarks to qualify for a license in their sprawling city. A study conducted by the University of London found that these drivers have a significantly large hippocampus – the region of the brain that stores and organizes memories. So, it clearly does not hurt to train your brain with navigation info!
4. Take Up Cognitive Training Exercises
So, in addition to learning a language you can participate in other activities that challenge your intellectual capacity. This can be learning a musical instrument, playing chess, juggling, doing puzzles, Sudoku and even playing board games. It can even be integrated in your daily tasks, such as driving to work using a new route or having your meal with your eyes closed while listening to music or taking a shower with your eyes closed (combining your senses). Do keep your brain challenged in whatever you do!
5. Make a Mnemonic
If you struggle to remember facts or large amounts of information, the following trick is quite useful. Mnemonics can come in the form of a rhyme, acronym, image, phrase or sentence. For example, if you need to remember how to cook rice, repeat this rhyme: “Cooking rice? Water’s twice.” So, you can recall that for every one cup of rice you need two cups of water. Acronyms are very popular too and are often used by students to remember grammar rules and other academic lessons. Here is a popular one used as first aid advice for injured limbs: RICE – Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation. In a sentence form, a classic one is “Every Good Boy Does Fine” which helps people remember the musical notes E, G, B, D and F on the lines of the treble clef. Go ahead and make your own mnemonics to create associations that help you recall things more easily.
6. Do Mental Math
These days we are inclined to use the calculator on our smartphones which does make life easier, especially if we are in a hurry. However, doing a number of addition or subtraction problems daily in our heads is a great cognitive exercise. You can make this task more difficult (and athletic) by walking at the same time. Give it a go next time you go for a walk and make it a habit. Check the answers afterwards with your calculator and make the equations harder on yourself as you get better.
Now, telling stories is something we do when we want to entertain our children or perhaps recall an experience to someone at a party or even make it part of a speech to engage an audience. But how can that be good for us mentally you may ask? Well, it turns out storytelling is a great mental stimulant. It is also a highly respected skill and tradition in many ancient cultures. After all, the oral tradition was how a society’s knowledge and history could be passed onto the next generation. These days, scientists are exploring the art of storytelling for cognitive health and it is being used as a treatment for Alzheimer’s disease. Research shows that storytelling helps to keep us alert; it allows us to focus on important details, associate emotions with our memories, and allows us to remember important life events much easier later on. Perhaps you can make it a habit to tell stories to each other during gatherings, such as during meal times or just to one other person in a conversation. You will also find that others love to hear a good story! After all, stand-up comedians make a living out of telling stories, albeit with lots of humor and sarcasm.
We have spoken to you about meditation before at The Wellness Project and we simply can’t reiterate enough on its positive benefits when it is practiced regularly. It so happens that this practice has been scientifically proven to improve one’s memory and ability to focus. Meditation increases the blood flow to the brain. In turn, this leads to stronger network of blood vessels to the cerebral cortex and that boosts memory capacity and the ability to concentrate. If you feel that this practice is too time consuming, well, try to schedule it for just five minutes first thing in the morning and the last thing at night before you sleep. Eventually, you will be able to make a habit of it and reap the benefits. If you are one of those individuals who have tried meditation but find it challenging to stick to it, a few meditation tips may help you get back on track.
Well, we hope you got some inspiration from our tips! Remember maintaining your brain power is highly important and just like any skill, as the famous saying goes: ‘if you don’t use it you lose it’! Don’t let your brain be a ‘couch potato’ and keep active mentally. If you have any fun tips or ideas we did not mention here, please write to us as we always love to hear from you.
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