Smart tips for exercising your brain

Brain exercise is key in maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Consider these tips and challenge your brain every day through puzzles, reading, thinking, problem solving, and conversing.

Smart tips for exercising your brain

Why you should exercise your brain

Neuroscientists have since found that people who use their brains more often seem to possess brain-saving reserves. And they believe that stressing the brain in ways similar to the way we stress muscles during exercise can produce similar benefits — a stronger, fitter, more flexible brain.

  • What helps: In one study of 1,772 older people with normal brain function, the odds of developing dementia dropped 12 percent for each leisure-time activity they were involved in. Those with the most activities were 38 percent less likely to develop thinking problems during the seven-year study.
  • Exercise, spending time with friends, and intellectual pursuits all helped, but activities that required the most concentrated brain power, such as reading, doing crossword puzzles, were the most protective.

Keeping your brain in shape with good stress

While "bad stress" leads to depression and cognitive problems, this "good stress" seems to help the brain by stimulating nerve cells, increasing blood flow, and boosting production of neutrophins — chemicals that protect brain cells.

  • While you're at it, give your body a dose of good stress, too: Exercise increases levels of a chemical called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which acts like brain fertilizer.
  • This chemical increases the number of connections between neurons, helps spur the growth of new blood vessels in the brain, may aid in the growth of new neurons, and protects existing nerve cells in the brain from free radical damage.
  • Adding neurobics to your mix of brain-healthy pursuits could make an even bigger difference. Your brain is activated by your senses, and you encounter new stimuli all the time so activities that involve one or more of your senses in a new way, such as getting dressed with your eyes closed, or that combine two or more senses in unexpected ways, such as listening to a piece of music while smelling an aroma, can strengthen synapses between nerve cells and make brain cells produce more brain growth molecules.
  • Just going through regular daily routines won't help your brain stay strong and flexible, simply because you're so used to them that your brain's virtually on autopilot when you brush your teeth, make the morning coffee, and do all the other daily things that never vary.
  • By breaking the routine, you stimulate unused parts of the brain.

Inexpensive ways to keep your brain active

While you can buy fancy computer programs and sign up for pricey brain-training classes, you can get similar results without spending a dime.

  • Love crossword puzzles or Sudoku games? Try more challenging ones.
  • Are you a lifelong lover of books? Read something new.
  • Practice fixing things around the house.
  • Cross-train. Get out of your comfort zone.

Does it really help?

  • Consider this evidence. In the 20-year-long Bronx Aging Study of nearly 500 women and men, those who engaged in mentally stimulating activities, such as games or even dancing, four times a week were up to 75 percent more likely to stay mentally sharp than those who stayed on the sidelines.
  • And a five-year study of 3,000 people who went through just 10 hours of training in memory, reasoning, or processing speed still had slightly sharper thinking skills five years later.
  • Participants said that making phone calls, taking medications, and other activities requiring memory and judgment were somewhat easier — a gain experts hailed as proof that if you use your little gray cells, you won't lose them.
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