8 Ways to Keep Your Mind Sharp
There’s a lot you can do to engage your brain’s machinery in ways that help keep it healthy.
Your brain’s plasticity — its ability to change not just functionally, but also physically and chemically — is most heavily engaged by activities that are intensive, repetitive, and progressively changing. Those that emphasize refining the speed and accuracy of the brain’s sensory systems are most apt to help with daily life.
Look for activities that demand your attention and continuously introduce new elements you can master. Those types of activities engage brain chemistry that’s beneficial for learning, remembering, and mood by stimulating the production of acetylcholine (when paying attention), norepinephrine (when encountering something new), and dopamine (when feeling rewarded).
Here are some of our favorite brain healthy activities:
1. EAT DARK CHOCOLATE
When you eat chocolate, you activate the systems in your brain that pump dopamine, an important brain chemical. These systems enable learning and memory and help keep your mind sharp and fit. Chocolate also offers flavonols, brain-boosting antioxidant compounds also found in red wine and berries. To get the maximum brain boost from chocolate, grab the darkest chocolate available, with the least added sugar.
2. GO TO A MUSEUM
Go on a guided tour of a museum or another site of interest. Pay careful attention to what the guide says. Then, when you get home, try to reconstruct the tour by writing an outline that includes everything you remember. Brain plasticity research (studying the ability of the brain to change at any age) indicates that activities involving memory benefit our mind. Mental exercises that engage all levels of brain operation — receiving, remembering, and thinking — help improve brain function and hinder the rate of cognitive decline.
3. MEMORIZE A SONG
Choose a song with lyrics you enjoy but don’t have memorized. Listen to it as many times as you need to write down every word. Then learn to sing along. Developing better habits of careful listening will help you in your understanding, thinking, and remembering. Reconstructing a song requires close attention, focus, and an active memory. When you focus, you release the neurotransmitter acetylcholine; a brain chemical that enables plasticity and vivifies memory. So once you’ve mastered one song, move on to another.
4. COMPLETE A PUZZLE
As mundane as they may seem, jigsaw puzzles provide a good workout for your brain. Completing a puzzle requires you to heavily engage your visual processing system as you scan for target pieces, make fine distinctions about shapes and colors, and rotate pieces in your mind. It also engages the brain system that controls movement as you manipulate pieces in your hand and shift attention from the small piece to the big picture. Be sure to choose a puzzle that will challenge you.
5. PLAY AN INSTRUMENT
Research shows that learning to play a musical instrument is equivalent to a full-body workout for your brain. It calls on many interrelated brain functions including highly-attentive listening, fine movement controls, rhythm (coordinating timing and movement), and translation of written notes (sight) to music (movement and sound). This helps the left and right sides of your brain communicate more efficiently allowing you to solve problems more effectively and creatively.
6. PLAY BALL
Try incorporating a ball into your workouts. Even something simple, like throwing a ball in the air and catching it can hone your brain’s visual, tactile, and hand-eye responses. Scientists have recorded improvements in the brains of people who master sensory-guided skills like this — including greater volume and density in certain parts of the brain.
7. PLAY A WORD GAME
Choose a multisyllabic word. For example, memorize. Give yourself five minutes to list as many words as you can from the letters in the word (such as me, memo, zero, ire, memoir, more, mere, etc.). This type of exercise works on what psychologists call fluency, or the ability to find a word. Generating as many words as you can in a limited time period challenges the brain to practice the word-finding skill you need for that pause when you search for a word.
8. TAKE A WALK
We know that exercise is good for your body and your mind, but that exercise doesn’t need to be intense or prolonged to reap the benefits. Just 10 minutes of light exercise a day can immediately help parts of your brain communicate and coordinate with one another. It can also help you improve memory function. Studies show that people who exercise regularly tend to have a larger, healthier hippocampus — a part of the brain responsible for processing long-term memories and emotional responses.
Try adding one or more of these activities to your daily routine, because if you’re not taking care of your brain, how can you take care of your body? Another great way to stay sharp is with TB12 BrainHQ, an app that offers you quick cognitive exercises either for specific pain points or for a well-rounded mental workout.